Music, Musical theatre, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Hitting the sweet spots

Review: WA Academy of Performing Arts, Sweet Charity ⋅
Geoff Gibbs Theatre, 24 August ⋅
Review by Ron Banks ⋅

Sweet Charity is one of those musicals to come out of the 1960’s that viewed the life of young women with a blend of cynicism and romance. How could it be otherwise with a “book” or script by Neil Simon, the playwright who gave the world so many bitter-sweet narratives about looking for love, the difficulty of relationships inside and outside marriage, and the culture of masculinity that treated women as dependent on men for their happiness.

These themes bubble up in the story of Charity Hope Valentine, a hopelessly optimistic, naive young woman whose horizons, when we meet her, are restricted to a job as a dance-hall hostess, those ten-cents a dance girls who were part of the culture of seedy New York in the pre-feminist fifties.

Simon and his song-writing partner Cy Coleman (with lyrics by Dorothy Field) created the show for the 1960’s when the feminist movement was about to begin and women were questioning their own future. There was still the sense that marriage to a suitable man was an answer to their problems and an assurance of happiness. But could it be that there were other possibilities for women – perhaps a satisfying career as an independent person who could manage without the assistance of a husband?

Caitlin New as Charity, with Grace Collins and Annabelle Rosewarne as Helene and Nickie. Photo by Jon Green

These are the kind of questions that were beginning to be asked, and Sweet Charity shines a strong light on those possibilities, although they are at the ironic edge of the narrative around Charity’s search for love and fulfilment.

Watching the wonderfully energetic and even inspired version of this sometimes sad, sometimes morbidly funny romantic-comedy musical by final year students at WAAPA, one can only wonder how many young women are still trapped by the low expectations visited on the hapless Charity.

We know, of course, that society has come a long way since the sixties in leveling out the expectations of men and women in both relationships and career possibilities. But the doubt still remains that in some circumstances women’s expectations are still constrained and that some women have a right to feel trapped.

In other words, in telling the story of Charity, the musical is revealing the truth that progress is not always possible for all women – or for men, either. So it could be said that Sweet Charity is both of its time – and timeless.

That this productions can bring these thoughts to the forefront of thinking about our culture is testament to the power and gutsy performances of these young players, whose talents in acting, singing and dancing are wonderfully energetic and engaging.

Sweet Charity’s initial charm lies in the emergence of the eponymous heroine (or perhaps anti-heroine) in a choreographic solo routine that starts the show. Charity’s body twists and twirls upon the stage, demonstrating the vibrancy of her body, her main asset in determining her career possibilities.

That she has a mind as well is revealed as the show progress, but Charity’s sense of self is under-developed: she’s too trusting, too naive, too needy. Unlike her dance-hall colleagues who’ve developed a hard-bitten cynicism from the school of hard knocks, Charity prefers optimism to cynicism, trust to disbelief.

Caitlin New’s performance as Charity is stunning from the get-go, and she keeps up the energy and dynamism throughout this quite long musical, appearing in most of the scenes as her life and romantic entanglements unfold, or perhaps unravel.

The show is built around the triple threat talents of New, who is equal to the tasks of singing, dancing and acting. But she is excellent company, with a bevy of characters –  from the young men in her life to the other girls at the dance-hall – who get the chance to shine, displaying an amazing sense of confidence and maturity for young players about to begin their careers on the stage.

There is some quite brilliant choreographed sequences by Michael Ralph, crisply executed by the large ensembles of dancers that suddenly emerge on stage. Behind them, literally on the stage, is the orchestra under the direction of Craig Dalton that keeps the musical moving forward. Show-stoppers such as Hey Big Spender, If They Could See Me Now and The Rhythm of Life are brought to life with all the glory of the original production on Broadway that featured the choreography of Bob Fosse with Gwen Verdon as Charity. That’s some company these young players are keeping up with, under the astute direction of Sydney-based director Shaun Rennie.

Just about everyone deserves recognition for their performance, but singled out must be Grace Collins and Annabelle Rosewarne as dance-hall colleagues Helene and Nickie, Conor Neylon as heart-throb actor Vittorio Vidal, Victoria Graves as his girlfriend Ursula (both characters a parody of the Hollywood movies), Luke Wilson as potential boyfriend Oscar and Jackson Peele as Daddy, the jazz-playing pastor whose song The Rhythm of Life, is a delightful ensemble dance parody of sixties religious cults.

WAAPA’s Sweet Charity hits all the bitter-sweet spots with perfect precision.

Sweet Charity runs until  August 31.

Pictured top: The energetic young cast of Sweet Charity. Photo Jon Green.

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