When co-directors Kris Stewart and Maureen Bowra call Sweet Charity ‘stylistically unconventional’, they’re not kidding.
This musical is bananas, an episodic romp through the sexual revolution with ‘poetical virgin’ and dance hall hostess Charity at the helm. It’s a show that shimmies between set-pieces with little but the charisma of its lead to pull it together, and toughest of all is its tone. With its clashing social mores and themes of purity in a post-purity world, the show sets up Charity as a kind of Tess Durbeyfield with a Bumpit®, which is as wild as it sounds.
Going into Understudy Production’s opening night, which was sold out to the ceiling, I had my doubts about how they’d pull it all together. The doubts didn’t survive the first number: Sweet Charity is delightful in every way. Much of its success comes down to Naomi Price as Charity, an obvious choice as a performer I associate most with one-woman shows (such as Rumour Has It, Lady Beatle and most recently, Christmas Actually, produced by Price’s own Little Red Company). The whole show spins in her orbit, and she knows to bring the right touch of real pathos to the hyperreal character, sweet and tough and relatable without losing her fantasy edge.
But the worst thing I could do would be to undersell the rest of the cast, who are just as vital here. Lizzie Moore and Hayley Winch are the show’s tough-love heart as Charity’s dance hall family; Andy Cook is a treasure as Vittorio Vidal; and the ensemble brings the bubbling cultural stew of New York City to life. Emily Corkeron stood out especially in the show’s dance numbers, and Rebecca Rolle is great in every small role she touches, but the whole cast works the hell out of the room.
I think the creative team behind Sweet Charity understands the challenges of the show, and of putting it on in 2019. It’s clear they thought about it, hard. I’m actually a little moved, to be living in a world where Charity is considered a character of this much complexity. That said, I don’t think the show completely sticks its landing. The contradiction at the core of Charity – that she’s unsuited to thriving in, but perfect for surviving, the sexual revolution – is lost in an ending played more as tragedy than as inevitably cyclical.
Even if I’m not sold on their direction, it’s interesting enough than I’m reluctant to say more. When a show’s wrinkles come from trying something new, it’s hard to be mad about it. Understudy Productions are working to make Brisbane a home for not just musical theatre, but for Brisbane’s own performers and creatives, and they’re doing it while making deliberately bold decisions. So when you see this show – and you should see this show – it’ll give you a lot to talk about, once you’ve managed to get ‘Big Spender’ out of your head.
Sweet Charity plays at the Brisbane Powerhouse from 24 January to 10 February 2019. To book tickets head to brisbanepowerhouse.org
By Rebecca Cheers