Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Sweet Charity, Canberra Theatre

It's been promo-ed to death all over town, and it's received Helpmann awards up the wazoo. So the question is - what's the actual show like?

Well, it's still "Sweet Charity" - which means that it's a bit of an odd show, from that period in the sixties where the counter-culture was knocking at the door and Broadway was simultaneously gazing longingly in its direction as somewhere where the cultural heat and passion was going, and dismissing it all as silly kids stuff. So there's some strange tonal stuff where it's not quite clear how seriously we're meant to take all this - Charity is simultaneously a figure of fun and a figure of pathos, her workplace at the Fandango Ballroom is both a place of horror (her declaration "this is not a nice place" is particularly heartrending in this version) and a sweet fun place where everyone can have a glorious singalong to "I Love to Cry At Weddings". It isn't quite a show that works for me in a modern context - it's too keen to slap down Charity's hopes and dreams repeatedly to really be the fun frolic that the show frequently thinks it is.

I should mention I was up in the back of the stalls on this, so there may have been greater empathy from being closer to the action. But up in the far distance, it felt distinctly unpleasant to see this poor girl go through repeated pain. Cy Coleman's music is a great mix of jazz and ballady tunes, with Dorothy Fields providing caustic, sharp, consice lyrics, and Neil Simon's one-liners are freuqently witty, but there's a big hole at the heart of this that means I can't really call this an exercise I enjoyed.

There are moments in the staging that work very well, of course - In particular, the modern-art-inspired "Rich Man's Frug", and the decision to play the final scene on a stripped-bare stage (with even the on-stage band exiting) - and it's a skilled cast and ensemble (although the two cases where the band members sing are awkward - both have diction problems meaning that quality lyrics are lost). But I think stripping this to a simpler staging may have exposed some of the flaws in the show more than a more elaborate staging may have got away with - playing it for reals means that the places where the material is blatantly fraudulent stick out more.

I'm also not in love with the new orchestrations - the highly keyboardy-sounding version of the score doesn't entirely suit particularly well - while the band plays them well, it's not a sound I like particularly. So all in all, this is a well-executed example of something I just don't like very much.

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