Roll up! Roll up! For your Christmas entertainment, come and watch our heroine get repeatedly slut-shamed while singing a stack of fabulous Cy Coleman tunes, and still emerge with a winsomely optimistic smile plastered all over her cute little face! I mean really, what could possibly be more festive than a musical whose central character exists simply to get dumped by a series of inadequate men, the last time specifically because she isn’t a virgin? It’s fun for all the family… at least, if they’re trapped in the squarest, most conservative corner of 1965.
There’s nothing wrong with the production. There’s strong direction by Derek Bond, entertaining Fosse-inspired choreography from Aletta Collins, a clever, stylish set by James Perkins, and a warm, appealing central performance from Kaisa Hammarlund as Charity Hope Valentine, the taxi dancer with a heart of gold (even typing that phrase makes me feel a little ill). There’s a great-sounding band, a superb ensemble, and a bold, brassy Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields score. This should be glorious night in the theatre.
Unfortunately there’s also Neil Simon‘s book, and it’s a great big steaming pile of misogynistic shit. Based (loosely) on the revered Fellini film Nights of Cabiria, which isn’t nearly so unpleasant, Sweet Charity is a leading entry in the woman-as-kleenex school of dramatic storytelling. In the first act, a (married) boyfriend woos the title character (it’s implied over a period of weeks) and then mugs her and steals her savings, then an Italian film star picks her up to make his girlfriend jealous then hides her under the bed (usually in a wardrobe, but this is a theatre-in-the-round; here, wardrobes are difficult) when she unexpectedly returns. In the second act, she falls for decent, kindly Oscar, who (eventually) tells her it doesn’t matter what she does… and then in the penultimate scene dumps her because it does. And then she picks herself up, dries herself off – two of these dumpings involve Charity ending up in the lake in Central Park, presumably because ending a relationship isn’t humiliating enough unless it also involves a near-drowning – and tries to get us to buy that her resilience gives the show an optimistic ending. It doesn’t work, because Simon’s writing is breathtakingly shallow throughout; instead of characters, he presents us with collections of quirks glued together by one-liners, only some of which are funny. Simon’s Charity simply exists to be humiliated; consequently, the evening is very much subject to the law of diminishing returns. It isn’t very funny the first time, and it becomes more and more uncomfortable as we progress through the episodic plot.
The Fellini film, oddly, is far bleaker, but also considerably less unpleasant. Cabiria is a prostitute, not a taxi dancer – Simon’s turd of a book very carefully informs us that Charity doesn’t do any of “that extracurricular stuff” – and while she’s also used and abused by men, the Oscar storyline is quite different. In the film, he’s another crook out to steal her money, and Cabiria makes a proactive choice. Realising he’s setting her up to be robbed, she throws her purse at his feet – she chooses a way out, and gains strength from her choice (Cabiria, unlike Charity, gets shoved headlong into a body of water once rather than twice, which makes more difference than you might think). In Simon’s rewrite of Fellini’s story, on the other hand, Charity simply gets dumped and begs her useless lump of a man not to leave, and then three minutes later the show ends. How unpleasant is it? At the curtain call, the actor playing Oscar (Daniel Crossley) received good-natured boos from a significant section of the audience.
Possibly the show works better if you have a genuine star dancer in the lead as Charity. Shirley MacLaine just about gets away with it in the film, and in the original Broadway production Gwen Verdon must have been sensational on the nights she didn’t phone it in and leave out half her solo numbers. This is a dance-heavy show; MacLaine, in the film, projects strength through her dancing, and she brings a certain kind of star quality to the role. Here, we have Kaisa Hammarlund, and she simply isn’t that kind of performer. She moves well, but she isn’t in Verdon or MacLaine’s league as a dancer. She’s charming, vulnerable, believably real, but she’s a good actor rather than a larger-than-life star, and I suspect this material only really works if you cast a performer whose presence is much bigger than ‘real’. Hammarlund is thoroughly charming, sings well, and she’s funny. She does everything she can to make the final scene work – but the show needs the kind of star performance that can dazzle you into looking past the book’s essential unpleasantness, not a believable, personable actress who makes you feel every beat of Charity’s heartbreak when Oscar dumps her.
There’s pleasure, at least, in the supporting performances. Bob Harms has great fun with the plastic Italian film star’s flamboyantly insincere ‘Too Many Tomorrows’, and there’s a smartly rethought ‘Big Spender’ – the score’s most famous takeaway tune – which here begins in a dressing-room with the dancers preparing for battle before they go out to meet their clients. For the second-act ‘Rhythm of Life’ sequence – a rather condescending satirical take on 60s counterculture – Bond has cast the wonderful Josie Benson as the hippie preacher Daddy Brubeck. Nobody changes any pronouns; in a programme note, Bond explains that “by making Daddy a formidable woman, the song becomes empowering” – and yes, it does, but that’s fatally undercut by the subsequent dialogue scene, which exists mostly to mock Daddy and her church as hypocrites (marijuana, Daddy informs us, is sinful… “and so expensive”). Benson, though, is the most thrilling thing in the show, and she takes a song that usually comes across as slightly naff and turns it into something genuinely exciting; it’s just a shame that the song and the surrounding scene (like, to be fair, the rest of the book) give off such a strong whiff of smug small-c conservative writers looking down their noses at the onset of the permissive age.
In the end, despite everyone’s best efforts, this revival fails to overcome the material’s inherent nastiness. Bond’s staging looks and sounds great: Chris Walker’s new orchestrations for a nine-piece band preserve more of the character of the originals than you’d think possible given the small number of players, Mark Aspinall’s musical direction puts the score across with tremendous verve, and the singing throughout is terrific. Everybody involved is working at the top of their game – but the material, despite Coleman’s dazzling score, is faintly putrid. Hammarlund’s Charity is nothing if not sweet; too bad the show she’s in leaves such a distinctly sour aftertaste.