Sweet Charity review – ‘Oh Mama, welcome to the 60s!’

Ela Portnoy applauds the strongest dance cast she's seen on an Oxford stage

Sweet Charity at the Oxford Playhouse

Sweet Charity may be based on an Italian neo-realist film from the 50s, but if you walk into the Playhouse this week you’ll find pink skies, bouffant hair and candyfloss smiles. Oh Mama, welcome to the 60s it is!

As a choice for a student musical, Sweet Charity is not an obvious candidate. Sure, the cast is female-heavy and calls for a strong female lead, but the female roles themselves are pretty dated, featuring lots of scantily-clad prostitutes. And not the strong Chicago kind of I’m-sexy-and-I’m-gonna-kill-you, but rather lots of sad-looking young women standing around and sighing every time a guy doesn’t pick them to sleep with. Still, though the story is pretty predictable, Sweet Charity is a good old-fashioned feel good through and through.

The first thing I have to mention is the dancing. Very few shows manage to have the quality chorus that this show does. And in a cast made up of professional ballet dancers to first-timers in theatre, it is no mean feat filling the playhouse stage with that swelling chorus line effect. The creative team should be applauded for their achievements, especially for the crazy 10 minute Bob Fosse dance break. The female chorus was especially strong, and though I can’t remember everyone who stood out (there were many!), notable performances came from Kristen Cope, Alicia Fisher, Olivia Charley (who did a great job with the choreography), Lydia Benazaize, and Liam Sargeant. But in general, I don’t think I’ve seen such a strong dance chorus before in Oxford, so the whole cast should be proud.

The singing was a little weaker. The cast were all good singers and some nice belting moments came from Jonny Danciger and Freddie Crowley, but in general the music was pitched at a relatively ‘safe’ level. There were, however, some brilliant acting performances. Greta Thompson was a suitably sweet Charity with a pretty voice and a flair for dancing. And I want to give a special mention to Ellie Mae McDonald in the role of Helene. There was one particular moment that stood out for me in the show, and it was Helene’s face as she stood in the spotlight in ‘Baby, Dream Your Dream’ (the lighting was spot on here too). Even though this is a musical, and even though it’s bubblegum and funny, it was beautiful just to have that moment where you see a character’s feelings without the humour.

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Alex Taylor’s set is great. I liked the 60s aesthetic and the detail in the different angles and shapes of the windows. It was edgy but tongue in cheek. The flying set pieces were nice. Perhaps the one questionable bit of set was the wardrobe that charity hid in. The lighting was great, very surreal and hollywood-y when it shone from the LED tape and the windows. The 60s costumes were fun and I especially liked the rhythm of life ones. There were some mic cutouts but that’s first night issues. Generally, the sound was very nicely balanced.

The one thing that bothered me in the show was the number ‘Big Spender’. I felt very uncomfortable because it was like we were invited to objectify the actresses and it didn’t feel ironic or tongue in cheek. What made it worse was that the senile man in the seat next to me wolf whistled in the applause, and the slightly younger old men on my other side started whispering to each other.

Still, all in all, Sweet Charity is a really fun night out, and since tickets are much cheaper than most playhouse shows it’s a good deal. If nothing else, go for Alex Buchanan’s dog walking, as the sequel to his starring role in Candide.

REVIEW OVERVIEW
3 Stars