Review of Sweet Charity in Concert at Cadogan Hall
In London there seems to be a growing trend for semi-staged revivals of classic musicals in concert form recently. Even the ENO mounted a short run of 'Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street' at the London Coliseum from 30th March to 12th April this year, which starred a high-calibre cast led by Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson along with surprisingly low production values. On the other hand though, the actors were accompanied by a vast orchestra to bring Sondheim's infectious score to life. Last night I attended Sweet Charity in Concert at the more modest setting of Cadogan Hall - a stone's throw from Sloane Square station.
Before I go on, personally I see both advantages and disadvantages in such stagings. I feel slightly torn about the whole concept. Professional West End revivals don't come around that often. How many are we blessed with each year? One of my favourite shows in the West End currently is 'Gypsy' and this is the first time it has been revived since the 1973 West End premiere starring Angela Lansbury over forty years ago. So if producers are unwilling to greenlight fully mounted productions, these comparatively cheap-to-stage concerts at least offer us the chance to revisit some of our favourite scores from the past. Furthermore we get to hear those iconic showtunes played by a much larger on-stage orchestra than you would usually find squeezed into the pit at a typical West End theatre. On the flipside, the real danger is that you sit there as an audience member wishing that you were watching a fully mounted production with sets, scene changes, and everything you would expect from a typical West End musical.
Denise Van Outen
(Photo by Alex MacNaughton)
The last time I saw 'Sweet Charity' in London was in a charming Menier Chocolate Factory production which successfully transferred to the Theatre Royal, Haymarket in 2010 with Tamzin Outhwaite in the lead role. For this review I shall endeavour not to draw any comparisons and judge last night's production as its own unique entity in a different genre of entertainment. Oh how I wish every show could start off with an overture - an element sadly missing in many modern musical offerings nowadays. The Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, at 23 members strong, opened the proceedings with a fantastic overture that reminded us of some of the show's hits, in turn justifying the very decision to stage it as a concert. And then we are into the action. Now when I say 'action,' this is of course not what the evening is about. Some parts of the script are problematic to present in a semi-staged manner without looking amateur. For example, Charity lying on her back in the confines of a lit rectangle on the stage was the depiction of her drowning in the lake towards the beginning of the show. More successful were the handful of fully choreographed numbers which featured the enthusiastic ArtsEd Ensemble, offering the students valuable live experience as well as the opportunity to showcase their talents on a larger scale than usual.
In terms of the story, for those who are wondering, it really is very simple. Charity Hope Valentine is an extremely likeable and ever-optimistic Dancehall Hostess, who wears her heart on her sleeve and consequently has it broken time after time by unsuitable men. The show starts with her current beau Charlie stealing her money, pushing her into the lake and taking off into the night. Her next male encounter comes in the form of international movie star Vittorio Vidal, who, after falling out with his turbulent partner Ursula, literally bumps into Charity and wines and dines her instead. She can't believe her luck and after a fainting episode finds herself back at Vidal's apartment. The two are inevitably interrupted by the return of Ursula and Charity spends the night hiding in the closet, whilst Vittorio and Ursula 'reunite' in bed. The third and final suitor of the piece is the much more accessible Oscar Lindquist, with whom Charity gets stuck in a lift (and falls for). She initially lies about her profession, claiming to work at the bank and they end up becoming engaged. Charity is ready to leave her Dancehall days behind. But will Oscar stick by his woman when the truth of her frowned-upon career finally surfaces or will Charity have to go back to the drawing board and continue her eternal search for love?
Denise van Outen aesthetically fits the part as the leading lady and does a praise-worthy job of bringing Charity's optimistic nature and instant likeability alive on stage. We are constantly rooting for her. Michael Xavier, who plays Oscar as well as Vittorio and Charlie (with Clark Kent-style costume changes consisting of a pair of glasses), is however equally as likeable. Even as the self-obsessed lothario Vittorio, his charm is so engulfing that we don't necessarily care that he has left Charity in the closet the whole night. The supporting roles of Charity's friends at the Fandango are portrayed effectively by the underused talents of a pregnant Kerry Ellis and Kimberley Walsh. The latter laps up the best line of the evening and delivers it with comic precision after the confession of new girl Rosie that she can't dance: "Who dances?! We defend ourselves to music!" Some of the most touching moments in the show are revealed as these Hostesses sing "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" and "Baby, Dream Your Dream."
Rodney Earl Clarke & ArtsEd Chorale
(Photo by Alex MacNaughton)
I commend the whole cast's efforts staging this concert with such little rehearsal time. Scripts were used sparingly and everything seemed to run smoothly and according to plan. Matt Flint's joyous choreography aside however, the only problem with the show is the fact that all the dialogue scenes ARE semi-staged. I feel torn between appreciating the effort of going some way to present acted scenes on stage and feeling that it should be a case of all or nothing. You could tell from the majority of the demographic of the audience that they were patrons who remember the musical the first time around from its West End premiere in 1967 and movie adaptation in 1969. They came to hear those classic Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields songs again - "Big Spender," "If My Friends Could See Me Now," "I'm The Bravest Individual," and "The Rhythm Of Life," amongst others - and hear them performed by talented singers and a large orchestra. Would that not surely have been enough?
But when it's all said and done, if you are specifically a fan of Cy Coleman and the music of 'Sweet Charity,' then this is a great opportunity to reignite your love for this timeless and eclectic score.
Sweet Charity in Concert plays its final performances at Cadogan Hall on Saturday 22nd August 2015.
Editor at Londontheatre.co.uk & NewYorktheatreguide.com