Sweet Charity

Bruiser's energetic, hep-tastic 'Noo Yoik' musical at the MAC is 'witty, wordy and full of heart'

What would the (O)MAC be without Bruiser? And vice versa? The decade-old symbiotic relationship between Belfast’s liveliest theatre company and the freshly minted flagship arts centre is reaffirmed by this big, blousy opening season extravaganza.

Sweet Charity is of course the awards-gobbling musical that brought sass to 60s Broadway and then the big screen, both courtesy of the late Bob Fosse.

With its relentless energy, skip-full of memorable tunes and slightly subversive take of the usual boy-meets-girl schmaltz, it’s also theoretically at least, the perfect Bruiser vehicle. But is it any good? Buddy, it’s sweller than a sock in the eye - to borrow from the ‘hip’ parlance of the age.

The story of 'Sweet' Charity Valentine, dancehall hostess and dreamer is, as the legend says 'the story of a girl who wanted to be loved'. Accordingly, this is a show that cries out to be adored, using every shiny bauble, tricksy set piece and carefully choreographed number they can muster. Unlike the hapless Charity though, it won’t make you regret it afterwards.

The superhuman physicality that director Lisa May usually demands from her casts is upped to ‘Avengers Assemble’ quotients here. This frantic ensemble delivers an all-singing, all-dancing production. And when they aren’t singing and dancing, the cast are busy acting, playing instruments and changing scenery. All without breaking even a bead of sweat.

Special credit must go to choreographer Jennifer Rooney for deftly co-ordinating so many limbs in both graceful and jarring synchronicity. Not a foot is out of place during the performance – except this writer's, who manages to clumsily upend an elderly gentleman in the interval.

Live music, played with gusto by the performers lends an added sensory thrill to the action. The almost physical whirl of fast moving woodwind, brass and strings fills the auditorium.

Laura Pitt-Pulford is a revelation as the ‘tart with a heart’. Equal parts Shirley MacLaine and Sue Pollard (yes, the woman from Hi-De-Hi), her Charity is a complicated yet compelling concoction of street smart, socially illiterate and achingly vulnerable. She plays a mean flute into the bargain.

Love-interest Oscar Lindquist is played with great neurotic brio by Tomm Coles, who ticks and splutters his way into Charity’s heart. That is until the ‘fickle finger of fate’ intervenes and he dumps her.

The sprawling action is cut up into fast-scene changes and interspersed with a liberal spillage of big numbers. It’s impressive that so much unfolds on a relatively small stage – strikingly set halfway between an NYC tenement fire escape and a showbiz stairwell.

Stylistically, Lisa May faithfully replicates the feel of the stereotypical swinging sixties ‘Noo Yoik’ of Bob Fosse’s original vision. She also incorporates an unmistakable Bruiserishness to the production. Cartoon cut outs, inventive use of umbrellas and some deftly honed physical comedy are as integral to this production as fishnets and convincing New York accents.

And then there are the songs. Of course there’s 'Big Spender', but there’s also 'Dream a Dream', a beautifully ironic 'If They Could See me Now' and a hepcat-tastic 'Rhythm of Life'. Most affecting of all though is the very lovely rendition of 'I’m the Bravest Individual' which marks the first encounter between Oscar and Charity in a broken lift. Unlike most of the songs, it’s downbeat, melancholic almost and not belted out. It perfectly captures the endearing sweetness of their initial altercation.

Great zingy Neil Simon lines are the chocolate sprinkles atop this big, beautiful confection. Snappy wisecracks like 'Who dances? We defend ourselves to music' and 'you run your heart like a hotel - with guys checking in all the time’ reaffirm that, thankfully, we’re not in Chicago anymore.

Sweet Charity is wordy, witty and full of heart. There is a deliciously ambivalent ending and a couple of knock-out tunes into the bargain. What else would you want from a night at the theatre? And 'Big Spender' could even soundtrack a new MAC marketing campaign.

Sweet Charity is at the MAC until June 17.