Very little warms you up as well as a blast of musical theatre, and, after my icy trip to a snow-capped Corpus Christi last Sunday, I can confirm that Halfwit Theatre’s forthcoming production of Sweet Charity will serve as the perfect antidote for the inevitable January blues. In short, it’s a musical filled with optimism, memorable music and unbridled energy; our brief peek behind the scenes hinted at a production that will both entertain and provoke in equal measure.
The show (composed by Cy Coleman, with lyrics from Dorothy Fields) revolves around the misadventures of the hopelessly romantic Charity Valentine, a dance hostess stumbling through a relentlessly bleak New York in the 1960s. In a city depicted (ironically enough) as bereft of charity, she manages to enrich the lives of everyone with whom she comes into contact, yet repeatedly receives nothing in return. All she can cling to is her desperate mantra – “without love, life has no purpose” – which carries her from elevators to nightclubs, ferris wheels to evangelical churches, as we are immersed in the burgeoning freedoms of the 60s.
In a bold move, the original style of choreography – the ultra-stylised work of Bob Fosse – has been retained by the production team. All angles and individual movements, it’s instantly recognisable, and a subtle but powerful choice from Nils Behling (Director) and Olivia Charley (Choreographer). While many university productions consciously relegate dance to the peripheries, instead privileging the acting and singing components, it is refreshing to see a production company steer so resolutely into this too-often neglected facet of musical theatre. Behling and Charley emphasise the intense nature of movement rehearsals throughout the production and even a glimpse at one of the show’s biggest numbers (‘The Rhythm of Life’) proves that all the cast’s hard work has not been in vain: led by the oozingly charismatic, enigmatic Daddy Brubeck, the chorus swam and flew through the complex choreography seemingly without flaws.
Indeed, despite the adoption of Fosse precedent, the audience can expect enjoyable variety in the dances featured in the show: Charley explained her desire to imbue the show’s choreography with ‘shades of light and dark’, with numbers like the visually restrained, angular ‘Rich Man’s Frug’ and ‘Big Spender’ contrasting to the flowing, suitably liberated movements of the hippy-inspired ‘The Rhythm of Life’. Such diverse physicality, excellently devised, ably executed and certainly not limited to the dancing, is surely reason enough to brave the January cold for this production.
Needless to say, a musical is far more than its dance numbers, and the energy of the cast perhaps belies the depth of cultural commentary that Sweet Charity provokes: perhaps it comes as no surprise that critical opinion diverges over the sexual politics of the show, given that it premiered over fifty years ago. While one critic has labelled the musical as “patronising and retrogressive”, more recent analyses have instead argued that the story is one of “female empowerment”. A musical that engages with the “rent-a-body” trade of taxi-dancers and ideas of female aspiration seems pertinent, even if its manner has previously been interpreted as problematic, something of which Behling and Charley are only too aware.
Understandably, the production team held lengthy discussions about how to present some of the more ambiguous facets of a hugely optimistic, upbeat show: in our conversation, they make no apologies for the presentation of the dancers’ seemingly hopeless situations but rather point towards the stark realism presented. Rather than dismiss the uncomfortable moments that might sit uneasily with a contemporary audience – such as the toxicity of the male protagonists, something which the production team reassure has not been sugar-coated – Behling points towards their treatment of one of the musical’s most iconic numbers, ‘Big Spender’: watching a run-through, the visual strength of the female chorus was immediately striking, their anger, aggression and frustration palpable. This was a far cry from the presentation of the dancers as mechanically seductive quasi-automata in the 1969 film version: the Fosse movements might remain, but there is no mistaking the autonomous spirit so forcefully produced by the actresses. It is little wonder that the male chorus were reportedly intimidated and unsettled when they first watched the complete sequence.
This is a production that seems entirely confident in its bold choices, whether they be the choreography employed or the questions asked of the politics. Simultaneously, it was immediately clear that the creative team have created a welcoming, positive environment for their cast. At a first glance, everything seems set for Halfwit Theatre to produce something quite special in the coming weeks: it’s more than likely that there will be nothing better than this staged in Oxford over the coming weeks.
Sweet Charity opens at Oxford Playhouse on 31st January (running until 3rd February).