Central Hall Musical Society’s production of Sweet Charity is, in a word, unmissable. Having never seen a university musical before, I arrived free from expectations and was overwhelmed by the sheer professionalism shown by the company on Friday evening. The capability with which cast and crew expressed both the intrinsic joy and darker complexity of this well-established classic was truly impressive and firmly justified CHMS’s position as the jewel in campus’s musical theatre crown.
Charity’s story begins with a series of comic placards carried out by the ensemble cast. These signs, alongside the use of lingering and fading spotlights, act as a reminder of the movie-style quality of Charity’s self-constructed narrative. While she cheerfully tells us of her engagement to a perfect leading man, we soon learn that he is a married customer she met in her job at a sleazy Dance Hall. Her dizzying idealism, played with endearing warmth by Rachel Higgs, does not always make for reliable narration and is constantly threatened by reality.
The ‘FANDANGO’ sign that dominates the stage typifies this battle between Charity’s dream world and the truth. The oversized lettering is reminiscent of Broadway but its seedy purpose is reasserted every time it lights up as Charity begins work. This smart bit of staging, while remaining as superficially bright as Charity throughout, helps to forefront the lingering issues of poverty and prostitution.
Such underlying darkness is further explored in the famous “Big Spender” routine. The Dance Hall workers form two lines along the balconies of Central Hall and, facing outwards, sing directly towards the audience, reaching over the railings with gestures that are by turn seductive and aggressive. The effectiveness of such simple staging is not to be underestimated: the audience feels the accusatory stare of the women from both sides and are reminded of their role as spectators, almost voyeurs, into the lives of these essentially desperate people. The underlying vulnerability, and anger, of Charity’s friends, played with clear relish by Marff Poeuthen and Terri Guerreo, are also expressed in the softer, “Baby Dream Your Dream.” While these darker elements could have been developed further, particularly in the somewhat surprising ending, the production challenges the very idea of turning such desolate lives into a cheery musical.
Still, no-one could accuse the show of lacking upbeat numbers. The group performances are particularly memorable. “Rich Man Frug,” an instrumental routine, in which glittering waiting staff shrug, flounce and pop their way along the stage, is a visual feast. Bob Fosse’s iconic moves are executed with carelessly stylish flair that dismiss any notions of intimidating legacy. The result is addictively watchable. The stand-out number, however, is the jubilant “Rhythm of Life.” The sheer energy of the cast here is palpable and manifests itself in a scene of effortless joy. Despite Charity’s initial reluctance to join in, this song best embodies her effusive enthusiasm.
Further moments of light relief are provided by Joe Mackenie’s turn as charming actor Vittoria Vidal and Ross Telfer’s engagingly goofy Oscar. His rising panic in the lift scene displays a genuinely hilarious gift for comic timing and left the audience in real need of an interval to recover their breath.
Ultimately, this production of Sweet Charity is as determinedly and resoundingly joyous as Charity herself. Nothing can overwhelm the irrepressibly sparky Higgs, the unbeatable festival of tunes and the easy chemistry of a clearly dedicated cast. While doing justice to a host of deeper themes, the production is uplifting and life-affirming. This is a huge achievement for Central Hall Musical Society and I urge all students to grab tickets for tonight’s final performance. It is guaranteed to remind you of the sweetness and rhythm of life.