Review: Sweet Charity – Hayes Theatre

Hayes Theatre Co – a new company devoted to furthering Australian musical theatre and cabaret through clever revivals and new works – debuted their first show this week: Luckiest Productions and Neil Gooding Production’s  re-imagining of the legendary 1966 musical (and later, a film starring Shirley MacLaine) Sweet Charity.

This isn’t a replica. This is a re-structure and a call to arms: these shows are living things and this country has endless talent through which to re-conceive shows and challenge old standards to make new, golden ones. This is the most exciting revival Sydney has seen in years because it is revitalising in the truest sense, i.e. it makes this show incredibly vital and necessary.

Verity Hunt Ballard and the female cast of Sweet Charity
Verity Hunt Ballard and the female cast of Sweet Charity. By Kurt Sneddon.

It’s hard to overstate just how much we needed this. It continues the music theatre narrative that started with last year’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson by saying, let’s get a little more raw, let’s smash expectations. Taking a big show – in story, scope, and sound – and putting it into a 120-seat theatre is an immense challenge.

Sound design is crucial here and for the most part this show pulls it off, thanks to sound designer Jessica James-Moody; with the exception of two or three lines there is excellent clarity. “Big Spender” is one of the most exhilarating numbers in Sydney musical theatre of the past few years: raw and new and unavoidable; bombastic and sexy and addictive. There’s a reason that song endures, has transcended the world of musical theatre: it’s an incredible piece of composition, and put back into context here, with director Dean Bryant’s production, it’s like it’s come home to remind you why you wanted it so much in the first place.

Sweet Charity. Image by Kurt Sneddon
Sweet Charity at the Hayes Theatre Co. Image by Kurt Sneddon

Washed in a colour palette of dirty reds and a little blue (lighting design by Ross Graham, with an innovative set by Owen Phillips), this production is a rough-edged lovable study of life under the average, standard, button-down routine. The women at the dance hall where Charity dances are not refined, but they are carefully created as women who love, laugh, complain, and celebrate together, and that’s a wonderful thing. The costumes, by Tim Chappel, are scant when they need to be and clever even when they don’t need to be, which is the best thing about it – the fun surrealist touches to the look in the “Rich Man’s Frug” are surprisingly, delightfully sharp.

It’s all glorious. Verity Hunt-Ballard is disarmingly vibrant as hapless love-starved Charity, a true comic ingénue, worldly and world-weary but still endlessly energetic. She is playing nuance and complexity, which is perhaps one of the most intriguing things about her performance: in this small venue, in this so-close-you-can-touch-it show, Hunt-Ballard has presented a fully realised character. There is one moment after a job interview of sorts, where Charity stands in the corner of an elevator (marked out on stage by a square lighting spot). Her head is bowed, her body language politely, repressively closed. It is the first time we have seen this character try to physically diminish herself, to close in away from the world, and because it’s the first time we’ve ever seen her do it – she usually exists in big, sweeping arms and clattered excited steps – it’s absolutely heartbreaking.

Martin Crewes plays triple-duty as Charity’s three romantic interests: the boyfriend who starts the show by pushing her in the lake; fading film star Vittorio who seeks her company after abandoned on the street by his lover (Debra Krizak, pulling double duty, also playing Nickie); and then finally as Oscar, the one Charity really thinks she might marry. It’s a good, strong effort, broader than Hunt-Ballard’s but extremely enjoyable.

The show is exceptionally well-cast, and Bryant understands his talent pool and how and when to use them; an extra high kick or two from Kirby Burgess’ Bunny, a worn twist of irony from Rowena Vilar’s Carmen, a show of warmth, in the hardness, quiet but essential, from Lisa Sontag as Helene.

Sweet Charity – the story of Charity Hope Valentine, who has too much of the former and not enough of the latter – has never been more poignant or more fun, and it’s difficult to pull off both of those things at once, but this show manages it. And it’s a real sight to behold. A musical theatre revolution is coming, and its home is the Hayes Theatre. Keep watch; Sweet Charity is a near-perfect production, and the company shows infinite promise for the future. Trust me, if you’re not on this bandwagon yet, you should jump on it now before you miss it.

Cassie Tongue

Cassie is a theatre critic and arts writer in Sydney, and is the deputy editor of AussieTheatre. She has written for The Guardian, Time Out Sydney, Daily Review, and BroadwayWorld Australia. She is a voter for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Cassie Tongue

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