May 11 (Bloomberg) -- Dark desires are sweeping through London’s theaters like a forest fire. There’s murderous incest at the National Theatre. There’s a nymphomaniac duchess at the Royal Opera. And a group of cynical whores are popping their corks at the Haymarket.
The last are part of a new production of the 1967 musical “Sweet Charity” by Cy Coleman, Neil Simon and Dorothy Fields. The heroine, Charity Hope Valentine (Tamzin Outhwaite), works in the Fan-Dango Ballroom. Her colleagues offer men quite a bit more than dancing, as they inform us with snarling bitterness in the number “Big Spender.” Unlike them, Charity retains her innocence and optimism and keeps looking for Mr. Right.
Sounds implausible? The story requires Charity to be downtrodden and possess the self-esteem of a squashed tomato. Simultaneously she must look terrific, dance prettily, and belt numbers with zingy confidence. That’s a tough circle to square, and it’s no reflection on Outhwaite’s charming performance if she doesn’t manage it. Perhaps nobody can. Shirley MacLaine certainly didn’t in the 1969 movie.
Mark Umbers is more successful playing the succession of men in Charity’s life. He’s sly as the crook Charlie, suave as film star Vittorio, and hilariously nerdish as accountant Oscar Lindquist. Matthew White helps things along too with fast-paced direction. He creates an exaggerated 1960s look with mini-skirts and maxi-wigs, and treads a line between comedy and emotional depth. Stephen Mear’s choreography (loosely based on Bob Fosse’s original work) is so stylish it helps disguise the ramshackle nature of Neil Simon’s book.
With numbers as foot-tappingly memorable as “The Rhythm of Life,” “If My Friends Could See Me Now” and “The Rich Man’s Frug,” what does it matter if they have almost zero bearing on the plot? As a musical, “Sweet Charity” makes a thoroughly enjoyable revue. Rating: ***.
The writers of “Sweet Charity” put a candy-colored gloss over the subject of female exploitation. There’s no such gloss in Thomas Middleton’s 1622 Jacobean tragedy “Women Beware Women” at the National Theatre.
The wealthy widow Livia arranges for newlywed Bianca to be raped by the Duke of Florence. Then she helps her brother seduce their niece, Isabella. It’s a world in which men regard women either as objects of lust or as possessions, and women must play the game or suffer the consequences.
The writing switches between horror and gallows humor, and director Marianne Elliott catches the shifts beautifully. Setting the action in 1950s Italy, she creates a powerful atmosphere of repression and luxury and supplies some lavishly choreographed set pieces. Lez Brotherston’s set, a ruined arch on a revolve, allows the various stylish locations to appear and disappear in the blink of an eye.
Harriet Walter makes a classy Livia, all poise and polish. When she discovers that her lover has been killed, her transformation into out-of-control tigress is all the more thrilling for her former restraint. Lauren O’Neil charts Bianca’s journey from innocent wife, via rape victim, to murderess with precision, and Samuel Barnet is stormy as her husband. Tragedy has rarely been such fun. Rating: ****.
Thomas Ades’s chamber opera “Powder Her Face” tells the story of Margaret Campbell, the “dirty duchess” involved in a scandalous divorce from the Duke of Argyll in 1963.
In the most famous scene, the heroine pleasures a hotel waiter. As she is unable to sing at this point, the composer asks her to hum and mumble, with amusing results.
In Carlos Wagner’s production set on a long flight of stairs, the portly waiter is transformed into a beautiful naked young man before our eyes: He represents the duchess’s wished-for partner, and the dream which makes her sordid reality more bearable. It brings out the pathos as well as the unpleasantness of the heroine’s story.
Joan Rodgers is by turns imperious, vulnerable and comical as the duchess. Soprano Rebecca Bottone and Iain Paton sing a variety of subsidiary roles with aplomb too.
The score mixes pastiche tangos, 1930s songs, spiky polytonalisms, and musical quotes of Stravinsky and Richard Strauss with wit and style. While Timothy Redmond’s brash conducting too often drowns the singers, it doesn’t stop the whole event from packing a satisfying punch. Rating: ***.
“Sweet Charity” is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Information: http://www.sweetcharitywestend.com or +44-845-481-1870.
“Women Beware Women” is in repertory at the National Theatre. Information: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk or +44-20-7452-3000.
“Powder Her Face” is in repertory until May 12 at the Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House. Information: http://www.roh.org.uk or +44-20-7304-4000.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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