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Sweet Charity

Luckiest Productions and Neil Gooding Productions in association with Hayes Theatre Co present SWEET CHARITY. Book by Neil Simon. Music by Cy Coleman. Lyrics by Dorothy Fields. In the Hayes Theatre, Darlinghurst.

What is it about the anticipation of a musical, especially one that I know and like, that causes ‘my inner child’ to appear? Whatever it is, here ‘he’ is possessing my fingers, so indulge me:
The Hayes Theatre Co has taken possession of the old Darlinghurst Theatre at the end of Greenknowe Avenue and designated it as a permanent home for music theatre and cabaret in Sydney. A very welcome initiative and one longed for by many in the community. In a city as large as Sydney, and one that has cultural aspirations (if not, pretensions), even in this modest space, both for performance and audience numbers, one can shout a hopeful “Hooray”. Things are looking up.

One of the role models for this organisation could be the Menier Chocolate Factory in South London, which has acquired a reputation for outstanding musical production and, although, its ‘brief’ covers not only musical and cabaret performance, but straight theatre as well, it has had an International impact in the transfer and critical acclaim for its Musical production work – it seats only 180 patrons, slightly larger than the Hayes, (118?) and appears to have a bigger staging space, but, as they say: “from little things, big things grow”. There was enough excitement in the foyer and in the auditorium last night, in the Hayes Theatre, to generate and inflame the ambitions and the ‘how to do it’ grit of the community of music theatre devotees, to inspire and transpire into success, equal, one hopes, to that of the London model.

SWEET CHARITY, is the first offer from the Hayes Theatre Co. and is produced by Luckiest Productions (Richard Carroll, Lisa Campbell and David Campbell) and Neil Gooding Productions. SWEET CHARITY is a 1966 Broadway musical, with a Book by Neil Simon; Music by Cy Coleman; lyrics by Dorothy Fields, and was Conceived, Staged and Choreographed by Bob Fosse, originally.

SWEET CHARITY marked the second phase of Bob Fosse’s work on Broadway, the conscious development of choreographic direction as the spearhead of the end product.

…Musicals are more of a piece now, not scenes directed by one man and dance numbers directed by another. The ideal is to make movement consistent throughout, make the actors’ movement blend with the dance movements’, said Bob Fosse. That ideal in time became the very substance of Fosse’s shows as he increasingly approached musical staging not as a means but as an end in itself.” [1].

SWEET CHARITY, with Fosse’s wife, Gwen Verdon, a now famous Broadway “hoofer”, in the lead, was created around her dance potentials, despite the strong book from Neil Simon, who was the hottest Broadway writer of the time, he, coming off the success of BAREFOOT IN THE PARK (1963) and THE ODD COUPLE (1965). (Though, reading in the new bio-book: FOSSE by Sam Wasson one suspects that there was some re-jigging from Mr Fosse going on with Mr Simon’s book, as well). The very famous night club sequence in this show, “Rich Man’s Frug”, was the first major statement as to where Mr Fosse was headed – where dance was the signature element of his storytelling, where the show stopped in narrative, to, instead, explicate dance for dance sake – similar to the show stopping dance sequence of the Harmonia Gardens that Gower Champion made for the finale of act one in HELLO DOLLY, (check out the film sequences for both). To follow was PIPPIN on Broadway (1972) – where Stephen Schwartz found his book virtually jettisoned, where “the tone of the musical changed – from a sincere, naive, morality play to an anachronistic cynical burlesque” – as well as his film work in CABARET (1972); CHICAGO, on Broadway (1975), perhaps the apotheosis of Fosse’s blending of all the elements that make a perfect musical experience; and DANCIN’ – a Broadway show that was only dance (1978) – the show that Alan Jay Lerner (MY FAIR LADY, CAMELOT) sent an opening night telegram to Fosse saying “You finally did it. You got rid of the author”, and his semi- autobiographical film, ALL THAT JAZZ (1979), that was dominated by the dance sequences.

This tendency of focus for Bob Fosse, may account for some of the famous dilemmas, some feel, concern the second act of SWEET CHARITY, which for Broadway tastes, seems to fizzle into a realistic play with, an unusual, for Broadway of the times, an unhappy ending. The origins of SWEET CHARITY is the famous Fellini film, NIGHTS OF CABIRIA (1957), starring Giulietta Masina, (the wife of Fellini), which is the story of a prostitute in post-war Rome with all of her religious background, grounding and grinding her to places, that for any other human being, might have led to despair. The famous last sequence in the film has Ms Masina, moving off into the future with a gleam of hope, silhouetted in a glowing light, umbrella open (Mary Poppins like, it occurs to me!), which affects us with the satisfying end to a kind of “fairy story”.

In SWEET CHARITY the world has been transferred to a seedy dance hall in New York, the Fandango Ballroom, and Charity has none of the European underpinnings of religious heritage to struggle with and support her, during her travails, rather, perhaps, instead the false prophet of the power of money to help her secure her future (a very American dream of some historic consistency –  check out WOLF OF WALL STREET and compare and contrast with the Italian film, THE GREAT BEAUTY, an example par excellence of the dream values and the way the two cultures serve up a critique of their worlds). Maybe, Mr Fosse just ran out of time to develop the dance elements of his vision to secure a more satisfactory last act? Or, is it his genius to subvert the expectancy of the tastes of the time, to a fierce reality? The themes and manner of telling his chosen stories certainly became bleaker and bleaker: CABARET (film) and the great CHICAGO. Certainly, I have no problem with the ending as it stands today, unlike in my impressionable, still romantic, teenaged years. Neither did the American audience, of 1966, for it ran for 608 performances and 10 previews and has been revived since, many times, there and around the world.

The auspicious choice of this production to be the inaugural production for the Hayes Theatre, is enhanced by the historic connection to the original Australian production of this show, by the then great commercial management, J.C. Williamson, in 1967, when Nancy Hayes, a young Australian artist was belatedly promoted to stardom as Charity. This inclination to have, at last, Australian artists in leading roles in these commercial ventures had changed when Jill Perryman created Fanny Brice in FUNNY GIRL at the old Her Majesty’s Theatre, in Sydney, in 1966, to enormous National popular success – a true leading lady, as was Ms Hayes, then, and still is. Up until that time J.C.Williamson usually imported so-called international stars – artists – to play the leads, it was deemed a better box office strategy with Australian audiences – has much changed when one looks at some of our film castings?

The serendipitous blessing, that Ms Hayes gave to the company, on stage at the opening night, when she was acknowledged and respectfully honoured by the SWEET CHARITY company and audience, to congratulate this generation of artists and imagine/predict her hopes for the bright future for this endeavour was truly moving. A rare opportunity to see the sequences of our history being so presently connected – moments to remember. This SWEET CHARITY being, one hopes, a contemporary turning point for Sydney (Australian) musical theatre, as was the 1967 production, with Ms Hayes present at both – wonderful! One anticipates that Ms Hayes, either as a director or choreographer, if not performer, can be engaged in that future. How about a cabaret season, night or two or more, with Ms Hayes? – I am sure she would have a tale or two to tell, as interesting and entertaining, as anything, as say, Elaine Stritch, gave to her home audiences. In 2009, the Menier, mentioned above, produced a version of SWEET CHARITY, which was transferred into the London West End, and was consequently nominated for three Olivier Awards, in 2011. To see the whole amazing list of their transferred productions out of their tiny space into the West End, even Broadway, is awe inspiring. Let us see what can happen here in Greenknowe Ave!

Back to my inner child: I am the black sheep of my family. No one, before me, in any of my network of family, ever expressed an interest, or, even went to the theatre. How is it that I’ve been ‘blighted’ so? I blame my interest in the bright lights of the stage, on my growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s and watching television – all those classic films: the Black and White genius of the Warner Brother’s Studio: Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Joan Crawford, Edward G. Robinson, among many; and, of course the colour extravaganza of MGM musicals SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS; THE STUDENT PRINCE; GUYS AND DOLLS; HIGH SOCIETY – oh, now, I remember, my dad, who did like Mario Lanza, used to sometimes sing (a little bit drunk) to the L.P. records we had, on family occasions, before the adult relatives settled down with him into night-long poker and rummy card games at my granny’s.

I never saw a live musical, professional or otherwise, until OLIVER! at the Theatre Royal, maybe, in 1965, and, so was dependent on the local ‘picture show’ to keep me in touch with the latest. I remember distinctly, THE KING AND I at the Boomerang Cinema, Coogee Beach: “Shall We Dance?”; WEST SIDE STORY at The Mayfair: “Maria, Maria, Maria”; SOUTH PACIFIC (which I, also, saw at the Mayfair in Castlereagh St, 6 times!): “Some Enchated Evening”(s) or really matinees; and, of course, THE SOUND OF MUSIC (at the same cinema, the Mayfair, 16 times. Yes, 16 times!! – Nuns, children, songs, Nazis and that beautiful Baroness, how could one resist the formula?): “Do Re Mi Fa”. I began to lose interest in the musical around about MY FAIR LADY: “The Rain In Spain”, which I felt was a bit boring ! (I saw it maybe 7 or 8 times at the especially mauve decorated Century cinema in George St); so, when I came to the movie version of SWEET CHARITY: “Hey Big Spender”, although, I saw it some 5 or 6 times, somewhere in PItt St., in my teenaged discernment, I judged that the script and the direction of the book was lousy, and the song and dance sequences were amazing. Shirley MacLaine was better as Charity than in that other ‘good-time-girl’ movie, IRMA LA DOUCE ( a version of a musical without the music bits – I knew there was something wrong with it, besides the irritating Jack Lemon, oops, that is Jack Lemmon, not lemon!). Shirley was kind of cute, remember AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS, and her Indian Princess?, I may have fallen in love with her, then. And, even I knew that the ending was odd, wrong, and was surrounded by confirming studio gossip, which I read avidly, wherever I could find the entertainment sections in magazines and newspapers – those were the days, my friends, with NO internet, just bookshops with magazine sections! I haunted them.

I saw my only other live production of SWEET CHARITY a few years ago (2007), when Tony Knight directed it in the school program at the great “old-NIDA”, with Jessica Marais and Hugh Sheridan in the cast.

OK, put the ‘child’ in the corner for a while.

Packed onto the tiny stage in Darlinghurst, seventeen artists smoulder around the design elements by Owen Phillips, in atmospheric lighting by Ross Graham, dressed in the first of many witty costumes by Tim Chappel. Six of those artists are the band led by an inspirational and exciting, Andrew Worboys, and the amplified thrum of a sleazy dance hall welcomes us to our seats. Dance Hall Hostesses, lean into some of the audience and invite them to dance, which some do, and maybe were promised a later ‘adventure’, until the familiar music of the SWEET CHARITY overture, in glittering, enticing arrangements, begins.

The energy and excitement of this show came quickly, infectiously, into the confined space of the Hayes Theatre, and we were swept along by the ingenious creativity of all, led by Director, Dean Bryant, and especially the great choreography of Andrew Hallsworth (especially, in consideration of the small space he had to create in). Mr Phillips has solved, ingeniously, the space problems with two large, oblong, reflective glass/mirrors on wheels and explicitly useful properties to set the key visuals for the changing scenes. Integral to this is the choreographic organisation of the company in shifting the settings, almost imperceptibly, whilst also changing costume and wigs, all to the timing of the movement of the musical storytelling to explode on cue into song and dance. A kind of military planning and strategic action – incredible team and team work! This company of performers are dedicated and obviously thrilled and determined to make this production work and be memorable. They do this.

To begin at the top of congratulations, the musical sound coming from the band led by Mr Worboys is the highlight of this production, and Mr Worboys’ solo as “Herman” giving his immaculately committed rendition of “I Love to Cry at Weddings” is a knock-out. Kapow! This production follows the Menier innovation of casting the roles of Charlie / Vittorio / Oscar with the one artist. In this case it is with the sublimely talented Martin Crewes. I first noticed him in the disappointing DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, a few years ago, and saw a performer that not only could sing but could act – one of the few who could do both in that show – (he hardly had to ‘dance’ in Zhivago). In this triple casting Mr Crewes reveals, again, the qualities that I believe make a musical theatre “star” – he can act, sing and dance exceptionally, in each category. He is amazing in the detail of defining his three very different men as an actor, and his singing accuracy, especially with the clarity of his lyrics was/is outstanding.

Charity Hope Valentine, SWEET CHARITY, is being found with the creative instincts and skills of Verity Hunt-Ballard, and she, last seen, by me, in the Disney production of MARY POPPINS, as Mary, could not be more contrasted. The performance grows stronger and stronger as the evening progresses, and the last moments in the show, as it was with her Mary Poppins performance, are her best. Whether Ms Hunt-Ballard reaches a sufficiently wide arc of journey in her storytelling, or not, will always be a matter of taste, but for me, this Charity lacks the naive-cunning of a survivor, however dull witted she maybe, in the Dance Hall environment at the start of the show – just too nice and a little too wholesome (middle class) for me to believe her. And, despite the aid of amplification, to assist her, some of Ms Hunt-Ballard’s lyrics were unhearable, muffled, unsupported.

Ms Hunt-Ballard is not the only actor in this show that has similar problems. Debora Krizak, following the Menier casting innovations, has the opportunity to play both Nickie and Ursula. And while the visual/physical differences of character are remarkable – achieved with costume and wig changes (wigs by Ben Moir) – her vocal work, needs much more accuracy in the dialect choices (Dialect Coach by Jennifer White) and more consistent accuracy in lyric clarity,whilst her acting capabilities seem to be very basic indeed – both her characters, which are ‘gifts’ for  any actor, are relatively, shallow caricatures of externalisations. Technically, her mishandling of the vocal rhythms of Neil Simon’s witty book are, ought, to be regrettable. This is, unfortunately, true of most of the other performers as well. Jakob Ambrose, a recent graduate from the WAAPA BA Musical Theatre degree (2011), in his role as the job interviewer with Charity, almost derails their scene with a lack of any real character study or even vocal energy – thank God for the driving consistency of Ms Hunt-Ballard. This is true of many of these artists. It is a blemish, and does prevent this production reaching that sublime credit of excellence, that one witnesses in New York, for example. This company is very, very competent and has being drilled physically and vocally well, but not to the real standard of a Broadway show – whatever we might wish was happening. This is a really good ‘Aussie’ show that falls back onto ‘enthusiastic energies’ to get by, instead of demands for real, impeccable quality of performance (check out my blog On CIrcus Oz’s recent CRANKED UP). There is a fine line between good and great, and the difference is really, just plain “hard work”. Watch the documentary of the recent Broadway production of A CHORUS LINE: EVERY LIITLE STEP (2008) to see what standards I am judging by. The Director is responsible for this standard, he has cast the company, and one assumes, especially with the incredible difficulties of staging a musical, that he has within the time limitations done his best to help the performers – there is also credited an Assistant Director, Valentina Gasbarrino. So, it is, then, next and most importantly, the responsibility of the actors to be able to produce the required skill level in all areas of this very difficult genre of theatre, and near enough is, definitely, not good enough. Employing a carpenter, I assume he/she has the requisite skills to do the job at a standard of excellence – I want my house to remain standing. An electrician the same – I don’t want my house to burn down. No different, at all, when I hire an actor then, they must, I believe have the skills to do the job at a standard that I regard as excellent.

So, whilst applauding this production of SWEET CHARITY as an experience, and joining in the excitement of what is going on at the Hayes Theatre, it still, especially from the performing artists, not achieving the real qualities of a production of an international product. I encourage an audience to attend, for locked into that small space with the dynamic enthusiasms of this company one can be won, swept way, and forgive the lacks, because of the visceral vibrations of the closeness of it all. Sweet Charity is a good musical, the original conceivers were at some heights of excellence, or near enough to it, and the core drivers of this production appear to be similarly inspired. My concerns for this genre I love, are ambitious, and it is almost unbearable sometimes to watch some of the work we are given, here in Sydney, the recent GREASE production, a case in point.

This welcome new venture, the Hayes Theatre Co, should be a cauldron and centre for the pursuit of uncompromising excellence in its genre. It won’t necessarily, as history will tell you, make you popular, and it may mean you develop a reputation for being difficult, but, if we all are on the same page, a bit of extra sweat and tears, is worth it. A happy professional company is a role model of skill and storytelling excellence, that never relents in the constancy of the pursuit of high achievement. I remember reading a story of Gwen Verdon, between the last matinee and evening performance of her last performances in CHICAGO, after a long season, calling a rehearsal, to solve some problems – now that is some example of pursuit of excellence. It may not have made her popular but it IS what makes a star. I, certainly, would be having some Book rehearsals with some of this company still, if not, a drill for finesse in other areas, as well.

I read somewhere recently, “Genius is the infinite capacity of taking pains.”

Bring ‘my inner child” back from the corner: Two musicals in Sydney in small venues. FALSETTOS and SWEET CHARITY. The first an example of a kind of Broadway “anti-musical” – rather, a play with non-stop music; the second, an ambitious mounting of classic Broadway fare with all the stops and whistles.

Both worth catching. Book your tickets, immediately.

P.S. Once again, no program notes about the writers of this project either. Heaven help the writer to receive some due respect from their co-workers in Sydney.

1. SHOWTIME. A History of the American Musical Theater – Larry Stempel. W.W. Norton & Company –  2010.
2. FOSSE by Sam Wasson. An Eamon Dolan Book. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – 2013.