ON Broadway, Sweet Charity would come with a 30-piece orchestra and all that jazz. In York, you can see it up close and personal, so close that Katie Melia’s fully flexed leg comes within an inch of connecting with your reviewer’s face, plonked by invitation at the centre of the front row. Well, that’s one way to secure a thumbs-up review!
Sweet Charity might equally have suited the Grand Opera House or Theatre Royal stage, but director-producer Nik Briggs foresaw the benefits of making Neil Simon, Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’ witty, waspish 1966 New York musical comedy a studio-sized production, just as he found a new way to present pantomime at Theatre@41, with West End choreographer Gary Lloyd’s song-and-dance numbers to the fore alongside the slapstick in the Covid winter of 2020 in Jack And The Beanstalk.
Briggs calls it a “dance-heavy musical but one where you can really get into the story, and seeing those scenes so intimately will be really rewarding”. Consequently, he delivers both glitz and grit, romanticism and realism, with the aid of two finger-clickin’ good lieutenants, musical director Jessica Viner, leading her four-piece on keys and violin on the mezzanine level, and choreographer Danielle Mullan-Hill.
On top of that, if Briggs could have chosen the perfect week to stage a musical with a lead character called Charity Hope Valentine, then a week front-loaded with St Valentine’s Day would be the one. The John Cooper Studio is suitably fitted out with heart shapes galore, balloons et al, while the end-on stage is fringed with glittering tinsel drapes and audience members are seated around tables.
Briggs’s designs, topped off by the checkboard flooring for the Fandango Ballroom, give off an Austin Powers Sixties’ vibe, matched by the fabulous costumery, and vital to that look is the fantastic hair and make-up work of Phoebe Kilvington. All the better for being experienced within touching distance.
There is a sting in the tale to Sweet Charity, but the vibe is largely fun, breezy and very Sixties, and Briggs is in playful mood, replacing the lake of the film version with a bath filled with plastic balls for two scenes where Katie Melia’s ballroom taxi dancer – or dancehall hostess, to be more colloquial – ends up in both the opening and closing scenes.
Briggs refers to Melia as a “triple threat”, equally adept at singing, acting and dancing (including solo tap dancing here), and she has a goofy girl-next-door appeal to her too. Her heart-of-gold Charity is a dreamer, quirky and spirited, but too trusting, too generous, forever looking for love, but alas in the wrong places. Or, as fellow taxi dancer Nickie (sassy Emily Ramsden) puts it: “Your big problem is you run your heart like a hotel – you got guys checkin’ in and out all the time.”
Living in (dashed) hope, seeking escape, Melia’s plucky Charity goes from man to man, from Sam Roberts’s taciturn Charlie Dark Glasses, to Jack Hooper’s moustachioed movie idol Vittorio Vidal to Stuart Piper’s shy, neurotic tax accountant Oscar Lindquist.
Roberts’’s part is wham, bam, Sam, gone, but Hooper and Piper are both terrific. Hooper’s Italian accent and Latin romantic lead schtick are a joy, as his gorgeous singing, his debonair air served up with a dash of the tongue in cheek in Simon’s script.
Melia finds the comedy gold in both relationships, the first involving her hiding in the closet, chomping on olives and a sandwich as Vittorio’s high-maintenance lover, Ursula (York Stage debutant Mary Clare), arrives suddenly.
The second, spanning either side of the interval, begins in a malfunctioning lift, where Melia’s laissez-faire Charity contrasts with Piper’s hyperventilating Oscar, his performance combining physical comedy with aerated verbal expression.
Ramsden’s Nickie and Carly Morton’s Helene excel too, especially in their duet, while James Robert Ball shines as brightly as his silver suit in the stand-out Rhythm Of Life, everyone in green all around him.
Big Spender is an early come-hither taxi-dancer knockout, but better still in Mullan-Hill’s sensuous, sinuous and darn hot choreography is the Frug sequence of three ensemble dances, in black and white, each as groovy, baby, as Austin Powers could wish.
At short notice, Nik Briggs has stepped in to take over the role of matchstick-chewing ballroom manager/pimp Herman, reminding us of his now rarely seen singing and acting prowess.
Melia’s finest hour, knockout dancing, superb band, a frenzy of fishnets, snazzy gear and snappy dialogue, Sweet Charity demands to be your Valentine, whichever night or day, this week.
Performances: 7.30pm, tonight tonight and Friday; 2.30pm and 7.30pm, Saturday; 2.30pm, Sunday. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.