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Sweet Charity at the Chocolate Factory


It starts with the sound. From the second the nine-piece band strikes up the overture (with the famous 6-note riff which leads into Big Spender) Cy Coleman's thrilling score is delivered with all the punch, verve and excitement musical theatre fans long for. And despite filling the tiny Chocolate Factory space with a sometimes startling decibel level, the sound balance is so perfectly pitched that every word of Dorothy Fields' cork-popping street-slangy lyrics is audible. Musical director Nigel Lilley and sound designer Gareth Owen are the men to thank.

A prejudice about stage productions using TV names to boost box office made me fear we might get an under-powered Charity in Tamzin Outhwaite, but I needn't have worried. She is simply terrific, a riveting presence on stage, singing true, strong and with conviction (and great diction) and moving superbly. Some reviewers have missed a sense of Charity's vulnerability, and it's certainly an interpretation which displays less pathos than Shirley MacLaine's in the film version. However I found Outhwaite heartbreakingly convincing in the final scenes in which Charity descends into desparation and self-abasement when faced with the unkindest cut of all.

In an unusual move, the actor playing neurotic Church-of-the-Month subscriber Oscar, Mark Umbers, also takes on the roles of the other men in Charity's life. He is splendid throughout and it is indeed the multirole aspect which helps make this production's choice of closing moment particularly effective; the heart both smiles and sinks at Charity's total inability to change. I preferred this ending to the original stage version where Charity emerges from a second dip in the lake to take reassurance from a fake Good Fairy, or the alternative used in the film and most recent Broadway revival, derived from the source material (the Fellini film Nights of Cabiria), in which Charity is taken up by a group of gentle Flower Power hippies.

Under Matthew White's direction the supporting cast consistently hits the mark from start to finish. Josefina Gabrielle and Tiffany Graves nail perfectly Baby, Dream your Dream's transition from hard-boiled cynicism to a deep, still longing: the most poignant moment of the evening. Dorothy Fields would love them.Mark Umbers as Vittorio and Tamzin Outhwaite as Charity

The big numbers everyone knows - Hey, Big Spender, If My Friends Could See Me Now, Rhythm of Life - are masterfully staged by White and choreographer Stephen Mear (he of many credits including the NT's sublime, euphoric Anything Goes).

There are a couple of moments I especially liked, one from the start and one near the end. While the overture is playing the Fan-Dango girls arrive at work all brash veneer and full of coarse joshing as they trash-glam themselves up for the night ahead. As the music changes to the theme from Where Am I Going, so does the mood of the women. Movement stops for a while as they sit and stand in solitary contemplation of the state of their lives. A nice way to presage the themes and moods of the evening.

Secondly, I loved the staging of the number which comes the closest to the "must move plot forward" mantra often used to judge the quality of songs in post-war musical plays. In I Love To Cry At Weddings, led by Jack Edward's Herman, the coming tragedy is pointed up by skilfully spotlighting Oscar's growing unease in the midst of the joyfully vulgar celebrations. You sense the pain on the way.

The run appears to be sold out, but it must be realistic to hope that this classy Charity will follow the path from the Factory to the West End well beaten by Sunday in the Park with George, Little Shop of Horrors and A Little Night Music.




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