Sweet Charity theatre review (Hayes Theatre, Sydney)

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The minute you walk in the joint, the sophistication of the newly-dubbed and newly-renovated Hayes Theatre hits you. With a sparkling new bar and vintage furniture, surely this can’t be the same theatre that Darlinghurst Theatre Company abandoned for the decadent Eternity Playhouse. It might have all been done on a shoe-string budget, but if the photos that have shown up on the Hayes Theatre Company Facebook page over the last few months are anything to go by, this is a venue that’s been prepared with love. Nearly every musical theatre actor in Sydney with a spare day or two came in, picked up a paintbrush or a hammer and got to work. If musical theatre needed a home in Sydney, it may have just found it.

Inside the theatre, a line-up of the (mostly) female ensemble spruik for customers. A neon sign advertising “GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS” shines at the back of the stage while scantily clad dance hall hostesses climb on the back of chairs and call out to audience members as they enter.

Under Dean Bryant’s direction, Sweet Charity becomes something real; something palpable. He draws out the darker notes and puts his own spin on things that never feels redundant or forced; the aspirational Baby Dream Your Dream becomes a boozy, desperately hopeful affair, The Rhythm of Life ends up being more explicitly about free love than ever before, and there are no qualms about the exact nature of Charity’s profession. It is, in many ways, the Charity audiences know, but with the dial turned up ever-so-slightly, and the scenes and songs all clearly defined with dramatic impetus. This is no shallow song-and-dance show.

Verity Hunt-Ballard is revelatory as Charity. If Gypsy’s Mama Rose is the King Lear of musical theatre, Charity must have a Shakespearean equivalent. This is a character that’s defined by her complexities and fights to overcome gargantuan obstacles. She’s in a constant battle with her past and the tawdry hand that life has dealt her.

Hunt-Ballard’s quirks and optimism are undeniably endearing, but it’s her fighting instinct that draws you in and, when she inevitably fails, breaks your heart. Charity’s 11 o’clock number, Where Am I Going? mightn’t normally be counted amongst musical theatre’s greatest, but Hunt-Ballard imbues it with frustration and desperation (not to mention crystalline vocals), and forces you to hear the song afresh.

But Bryant’s version of Charity is much more of an ensemble piece than ever before, and Hunt-Ballard is well-supported. Martin Crewes is suave and swoon-worthy as Italian film star Vittorio Vidal, but his performance as Charity’s biggest love interest Oscar misses the mark. In a production where the performances are nuanced and intimate, he’s playing to the back row of a theatre far bigger than the Hayes.

Debora Krizak plays both Charity’s world-weary friend Nikki and Vittorio’s ultra-glam lover Ursula expertly. The characters are poles apart, and with a (very) quick wig and costume change, Krizak assumes a new guise and becomes unrecognisable. Lisa Sontag is just as fiery as Helene and Kuki Tipoki is in fine vocal form as Big Daddy, an ensemble member and guitarist.

Shining as brightly as anyone in the cast is Andrew Worboys’ musical direction, which rearranges the brassy Broadway sound of the original into a loud rock and jazz soundscape for a five-piece band. It’s occasionally, if rarely, overwhelming. But when it’s good — as it is in the whispers and roars of Big Spender — it’s spine-tinglingly good.

Choreographer Andrew Hallsworth has won what seemed like a losing battle. He’s stepped away from Bob Fosse’s iconic choreography, and managed to make big ensemble numbers work on what is a very small stage. He knows when to pay tribute to Fosse, with the Big Spender line-up and the hat and cane routine of If They Could See Me Now, but his take on Rich Man’s Frug is fresh and full of ingenuity.

The set, by Owen Phillips is grungy and minimalist; let’s face it, you can’t put too much “stuff” in this space and expect 12 people to dance around it. He uses sliding two-way mirrors to define spaces and reflect action back to the audience. The design is enhanced by Ross Graham’s colourful and moody lighting design. The wigs and costumes, by Oscar-winner Tim Chappell are appropriately whimsical (including a Campbell’s Soup Can mini-dress), and fall just the right side of cheap.

Sweet Charity is as strong a starting point as the Hayes Theatre Company could have hoped for. It demonstrates the company’s commitment to presenting the best musicals out there and using Australia’s best artists. The words “must-see” are bandied about all too often nowadays, but this is a truly exhilarating experience. And if the Hayes Theatre Company lives up to its almighty promise, one day you’ll want to be able to say you were there when it all began.

***

Afterword: Following its initial season at the Hayes Theatre, Sweet Charity announced a tour to Melbourne, Wollongong and Canberra, with a return Sydney season, this time at the Sydney Opera House. Ben Neutze revisited the production in its new, larger theatre:

When Dean Bryant’s production of Sweet Charity opened early last year in the tiny Hayes Theatre, there were a few critics who suggested that the show would work even better in a larger space — that the performances were so prodigious they would translate to a mid-sized theatre and have more room to soar. I wasn’t one of those critics — the grungy, intimate setting of the Hayes seemed to suit the work perfectly. But on viewing the production remounted in the 400-seat Playhouse at Sydney Opera House, the piece hasn’t lost an ounce of its pertinence or fire. In fact, it’s a potentially richer piece of theatre.

It’s extraordinary that Bryant and the performers could turn the dial up as high as they have on this production and still retain every ounce of nuance (Martin Crewes’ Oscar is still a touch too broad for my liking and not entirely in step with Hunt-Ballard’s Charity, but he does make more sense in the larger space). Hunt-Ballard and Krizak, in particular, have both found perfect comedic and dramatic rhythms — they’re performances that both run like clockwork and feel entirely fresh.

The colours are brighter, the performances are bigger, the dances are sharper, and yet the beating heart at the centre remains. Hey Big Spender roars even louder than it did before and Verity Hunt-Ballard’s If They Could See Me Now is a genuine showstopper. A few changes have been made — some costumes have been refined, and a few minor cast members have changed (Kate Cole has some excellent ideas as Helene, which I’m sure will develop into something even more profound after a few more performances in the role).

But seeing the production for a second time brings out some deeper meanings for me — particularly political ones. I have had this production in the back of my mind for almost a year now, and Bryant and his cast seem to be expressing those themes with even more clarity than they did initially.

For me, this Charity is about the eternal class system which exists within any society and how that informs one’s identity. At the end of the musical, our hopeful hero Charity says she can change the way she talks and the way she dresses, but she can not change things which are history, no matter how much she wants to. The casting of Debora Krizak in the dual roles of Ursula and Nikki (and, to a lesser extent Crewes’ dual roles of Vittorio and Oscar) speak clearly to this theme — Krizak changes her appearance, her mannerisms, her accent and immediately leaps from Nikki’s low rung on society’s ladder up to Ursula’s at the very top. She does this simply with markers of class, but the kind of social role play which Krizak employs can only extend so far — try as she might, Charity’s identity and position remains the same no matter the wig, dress or accent.

Bryant’s direction (along with Hallsworth’s choreography) in There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This emphasises the dire situation of the women of the Fandango Ballroom perfectly. Nikki, Charity and Helene are egging each other on to dream bigger and bigger — they literally grab each other by the hands and try to force themselves into action — and are caught in the delusion that those dreams might just be achievable. But the moment the song and dance finishes, there’s a quiet moment of resignation — Graham’s lighting returns to the dark, claustrophobic tones of the Fandango Ballroom and the trio quietly resume their monotonous everyday existence.

The 2005 Broadway production, directed by Walter Bobbie, played around with the ending so that Charity isn’t left entirely rejected, giving her more agency. I’d argue it’s a more searing (potentially feminist?) statement to see Charity’s powerless existence within a patriarchal society. Her potential social mobility is tied to men and to marriage, and that remains the case for many women to this day. In Bryant’s production, it’s not necessarily that she’s desperate to fall in love, but that she’s desperate for a connection which could change her life in almost every facet.

Time and again — whether it’s in Charity’s appalling job interview where she’s literally laughed out of the office or in her gushing over celebrities at the Pompeii club — Charity and the audience are reminded of her place in the world. What makes the piece as uplifting as it is heart-breaking is her persistent optimism. She will continue to fight against an oppressive world no matter how grave or devastating the defeat.

Sweet Charity is currently at the Sydney Opera House until February 8 before touring to Wollongong, Canberra and Melbourne

Featured image by Kurt Sneddon

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