Savoring a beat of pure, can’t-believe-my-luck joy before launching into “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” Tamzin Outhwaite’s Charity beams out at the audience in a moment of complete complicity. She might burst with happiness. She’s not alone. Matthew White’s revival of “Sweet Charity” is the most thrillingly complete piece of work at the Menier Chocolate Factory since the venue’s 2005 triumph with “Sunday in the Park With George.”
“Sweet Charity” is famous for Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’ tart and terrific score, but Neil Simon’s skimpy, sentimental book has always been something of a let-down. Not here. Whether initially dictated by directorial inspiration or the economic advantage of a smaller cast, the show is given a fresh layer of engaging wit by having actors double several of the leading roles. Thus all the men in Charity’s life are played by Mark Umbers. His Italian movie star Vittorio Vidal is partnered by the smoldering Ursula of Josefina Gabrielle whenever she’s not playing Nickie, the most worldly wise of Charity’s cohorts at the Fandango ballroom.
Instead of watching too thinly characterized writing, we are invited to recognize the implausibilities of the plotting and the comedy sketch-like nature of the scenes. What was once weakness now appears charming, and the weight of the material shifts to the numbers, exhilaratingly staged by Stephen Mear.
Mear knows how to build and sustain the joy of a number. Watching his staging of “I’m a Brass Band,” you remember the purpose of dance in musicals: It’s not a diversion, it’s about boosting energy into the action and pushing the momentum.
This was, notoriously, a Fosse show, and Mear clearly knows where he’s coming from. He tips his (teacup-fingered) hat to its creator’s trademark moves like the amoeba — the sideways-slinking clump of dancers powered by slo-mo flailing arms. But these are moments — not the kind of permanent style choice that strangulated the last, flaccid London revival 11 years ago.
In Mear’s zesty rethink of “Hey, Big Spender,” out goes Fosse’s long bar and in come high stools littered across the stage, against which the performers loiter, lounge and sprawl. Dead behind the eyes, these girls are exquisitely bored in a manner bizarrely sexy, knowing and daringly funny.
“We don’t dance. We defend ourselves to music,” says Nickie. Sure enough, leaning back and ready, in surly, mean voices they offer the promise of sex by slinging out “How’s about a few laughs?” then immediately snatch it back as they snap their legs together.
Tim Shortall’s set dangles just a sparse bead curtain to indicate the musical snake pit of the Fandango. Elsewhere the economical answer of tiny trucks wheeled on against a Manhattan backdrop wins a few laughs of its own. The Mexican restaurant where Oscar proposes, complete with tacky sombrero and chili-shaped light fittings, is deliciously silly, as are Matthew Wright’s ’60s costumes.
What hasn’t been skimped on is the nine-piece band. Nigel Lilley’s flawless musical direction is helped in no small measure by Gareth Owen’s sound design, which makes every syllable of Fields’ lyrics audible. Lilley gives room to two sizzling trumpeters doing their down and dirty best and, courtesy of new orchestrations by Chris Walker, adds percussive heft to the bump ‘n’ grind.
White has cast his production to strength throughout. Umbers has a gloriously unforced tenor, and as Oscar, he’s miles away from the usual nebbish and more akin to Ryan O’Neal in “What’s Up, Doc?” Being inarguably handsome also strengthens Charity’s choosing of him: Of course she’ll overlook his neuroticism when he looks this good.
As cheesed-off Spanish dancer Carmen, a role rarely noticed until now, Annalisa Rossi gets a laugh on every line. She doesn’t play Spanish, she plays stroppy, and it’s hilarious.
In an almost perma-smile and a blonde ’60s bob, Outhwaite’s gum-chewing Charity is all about hope, not so much naive as in complete denial. It’s like watching Doris Day repeatedly winding up in the wrong joint. And although she initially lacks vulnerability, her final crack-up is truly upsetting — before White adds a final light touch of hope to what looked like an unhappy ending.
In the last few years, the Menier has had plenty of misfires among its more widely known hits. Gotham’s shaky 2005 revival of “Charity” will probably preclude a trans-Atlantic transfer for this bundle of joy. But Broadway’s loss looks almost certain to be the West End’s gain.