The tiny, claustrophobic Menier Chocolate Factory theater has been the setting for musical revivals that have moved on to the West End and Broadway. The brilliant SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE and now A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC have been the best revivals of Sondheim's work since Sam Mendes's Donmar productions and the National Theatre revivals in the 90s. I hated the tacky Menier revival of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, but it did move on to the West End with osme success and is scheduled for Broadway this winter. No self respecting drag artist would wear the dowdy, ill-fitting costumes dreamed up for this version.
Now the Menier is serving up a revival of the Neil Simon, Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields 1966 show SWEET CHARITY which was one of the last solid, old fashioned book musicals created as a star vehicle. SWEET CHARITY was one of a series of musicals created for the unique talents of Gwen Verdon (DAMN YANKEES, NEW GIRL IN TOWN, REDHARD preceded it, all choreographed by Bob Fosse who was, for a while, Verdon's husband). Verdon was inimitable. Like most Broadway divas, she wasn't conventionally beautiful. She had a decent singing voice, great comic timing but most of all, she was a terrific dancer with a radiant stage perosnality. She wasn't a cartoon like Carol Channing or a one tick pony like Ethel Merman. You went to see her shows in great part because she was in them. During yesterday's fine performance of SWEET CHARITY, I still heard Verdon. Clearly the Charity, Tamsin Outhwaite had listen to the original cast recording -- she tried to capture that throaty uqaver that was Verdon's singing style -- and some of Stephen Mear's choreography for Charity came from watching Fosse's original. Outhwaite carried the show with the help of Mark Umbers who played all of Charity's lovers. She didn't light up the stage as stars like Verdon did, but was fine for the small Menier. Originally neurotic Oscar was played by the terminally bland John McMartin. the much more talented Mark Umbers made him a real human being and, as always sang beautifully.
Everyone in the company was fine. Matthew White's staging was clever. Mears's choreography wasn't up to Fosse's level but was highly enjoyable. The band was great. Most important, the show still works. though Cy Coleman's score is one of the best of 1960s musicals, I was most impressed with the virtuosity of Dorothy Fields's witty lyrics. I had never put SWEET CHARITY in my pantheon of great musicals, but this production came close to changing my mind.