Royal Exchange, Manchester – until 28 January 2017
“Life will be frozen peaches and cream”… I’ve seen a couple of comments questioning whether Sweet Charity is an appropriate choice for the Royal Exchange’s festive musical – I assume they avoided last year’s Into the Woods and the year before’s Little Shop of Horrors, neither show hardly known for their jazz hands and perma-smiles. For the joy of great musical theatre, of any theatre, is when it can find shades of darkness and light in its storytelling, finding a way to reflect the richness of life in its downs as well as its ups.
Director Derek Bond (whose Little Shop… remains a stunning high point) acknowledges all of the problems inherent in Neil Simon, Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’ tale of a dancer, the titular Charity Hope Valentine, and her repeated, desperate lack of luck in her romantic life and through his interpretation and the directness of Aletta Collins’ choreography, also takes it seriously. Anchored by a properly star-making and heart-breaking performance from Kaisa Hammarlund, it just works.
I’ve seen Hammarlund a few times before and have always liked her, but there’s still something gorgeous about seeing a performer with experience taking a well-deserved opportunity and absolutely delivering. Bond’s casting works on all levels though – Cat Simmons and Holly Dale Spencer are pitch-perfect as her co-workers, Daniel Crossley is charm personified as paramour Oscar and Josie Benson brings all kinds of new exciting life to Daddy Brubeck with a corking ‘Rhythm of Life’.
Mark Aspinall’s band sounds like a dream with this score of so many classic songs, James Perkins’ set plays intelligently with the in-the-round configuration of this venue, and the overall feel is inescapably joyous, a testament to Charity’s resilience if nothing else. That’s not to deny that others can find it problematic, but this is how I like my musical theatre, with a tingle in my fingers and a tingle in my feet, especially when Bond is directing.