I hadn’t seen Sweet Charity before, and nor had I seen the Musical Youth Company of Oxford perform before: and after a brilliant evening’s entertainment, I am now thoroughly enchanted by both.
The story followed the romantic ups-and-downs of a dancer-for-hire at a Times Square dance-hall, and this production was colourful and vibrant, a brilliant dynamic extravaganza of music and dance from a cast still in their teens. The light-hearted nature of the production was clear from the off, as Charity (Kelly Hampson) fell into a lake, cunningly provided by the orchestra pit along which several helium duck balloons were swimming. The staging of this show was simple yet imaginative, with just one permanently fixed piece centre stage that was used in a variety of stylised ways, allowing for a great flexibility of settings and backdrops through clever lighting and projection. And against this relatively bare backdrop, dozens of sexy sassy women, with tiny dresses and legs to die for, performed a visual feast of dancing with a self-possession that defied their youth, showcasing an eclectic range of styles paired with memorable tunes and classic numbers like Hey Big Spender!
Despite the large cast and big show numbers, including a stageful of fantastic tap-dancing waiters, the individual talents of many of the cast shone through clearly. Charity (Kelly Hampson) in particular was exceptional throughout, a charming young girl with a perfect mix of the cheap sex appeal of a dance-room hostess and an appealing vulnerability, who clung bravely onto her hope for a better life. With incredible assurance and natural comic talent, she brought a life and humour to character as she followed the fickle finger of fate through the storyline. In particular, her night in the closet of a famous film star had me in stitches.
Henry Jenkinson’s portrayal of Oscar too showed remarkable talent. When we first meet Oscar, he’s stuck in an elevator with Charity, the lift cleverly projected onto the backdrop and populated with the actors’ shadows, and his hilarious character had an appreciative audience laughing aloud time and time again.
Unusually for such a bright and lively musical, the ending is bittersweet rather than “Hollywood”. However, this surprise pathos had such an undercurrent of hope and the promise of future anyway that the audience couldn’t help but skip from the theatre full of that feel-good factor.
Theatreworld Internet Magazine, April 2010
I went along to MYCO’s production as a bit of a Sweet Charity virgin. I knew some of the songs of course: who has gone through 30 or so years on the planet without hearing Big Spender or Rhythm of Life? Sweet Charity is the story of a “girl who wants to be loved”. We know this from scene one where our heroine ends up in a lake, having been pushed there by her boyfriend who makes off with her money. Later when regaling her “colleagues” at the Fandango Dancehall she tells a rather rosey version of the story. As Charity often does when meeting people, it’s a trait that eventually leads to events coming full circle towards the end of the play.
Sweet Charity is an interesting choice for the Musical Youth Company of Oxford. I can’t not mention that I did at times find some of the material a little uncomfortable. That is not to say I am a prude, and the idea that our youngsters run around with pure thoughts is naïve in the highest sense, but this a company of 12 to 18 year olds and I feel it offered more to the upper end. However, one of the aspects I think the company and director – Guy Brigg – should take as a compliment is that they actually managed the unsuitability very well, and perhaps we should find the idea of girls selling their “time” uncomfortable.
MYCO is a near 50 strong ensemble of performers, and where Sweet Charity is a little risqué on the material side the number of cameos, smaller roles and larger roles it offers makes it great for such a company. They fill the playhouse stage and some of the highlights of the show involve everyone. The dance at the nightclub about halfway through the first act is incredible. 40 + performers all going for it with gusto, those fabulous 60’s moves came out in abundance and the precision was top notch. Fosse influence for sure, but this is original choreography. Brigg is a strong choreographer and it is unsurprising to learn he’ll be back next year.
The lead performances were strong. Kelly Hampson as Charity gave a full and committed performance. She has a good voice but it was her acting that stood out most – a mature, sensitive performance, for which she should be congratulated. She was equalled in every way by Henry Jenkinson as Oskar. For me he gave the performance of the night, this could so easily have been a 2-D shy retiring man but you really believed there was a person underneath the nervous tick, and his voice was the most powerful and assured of the evening. He even dealt well with the very difficult final scene, which I won’t go into for fear of spoilers!
Supporting these two are Fred Cambanakis who also give a strong performance and definitely leaves the audience wanting to see more from his character. Hayley Bater and Laura Chaitow are confident and strong as Charity’s best friends, their characters are feisty and full of attitude that clearly masks true insecurities. The reality is there are too many cameos and supporting roles to mention, but none of them are weak.
The thing that struck me most was the design. While we occasionally lost some front light with the follow spots (surely just an opening night thing) the lighting was evocative of the era and suited well, the use of nearly no set and projection onto a white back cloth worked a treat. It is rare to see such bold and ambitious work from a local company and Brigg and his designers should feel proud and vindicated in their decision.
At times you feel there could be more guts from the singing in the company numbers but I am sure this will come as the confidence of having a performance under your belt can’t be underestimated. Julie Todd’s band were musically tight and created that big band sound with aplomb; and scene changes were slick and professional.
A full house greeted MYCO and they gave them a great show. Congratulations to all involved and if you are mulling over what to see in the theatre this week stop and go and see Sweet Charity.
Richard Wyatt – Daily Information, 8th April, 2010
Large, inflatable ducks float up from the Playhouse orchestra pit at the beginning of Musical Youth Company of Oxford’s production of Sweet Charity. The reason? The pit has magically turned into a lake, and Charity has fallen most convincingly into it.
“Oh my ga-ad, I’m in Australia,” she cries as she’s hauled out. “What a stupid broad,” drawls a bystander. Charity is in the “rental body business” (as one of her friends charmingly puts it), and works at the Fan-Dango Ballroom, New York. Boss Herman (a splendidly seedy performance from Andy McIntosh) encourages fraternisation with the punters, and soon Charity attracts the attention of Italian film star Vittorio Vidal (Fred Cambanakis, looking suitably shifty). “You don’t believe I spent the night with Vidal?” asks Charity on her return the next day. “No!” chorus her co-hostesses.
For a brief while, there is nothing Vidal won’t do for Charity, but he melts away like ice cream in a heatwave once his domineering regular girl (Jess Glenn, most convincing) discovers what is going on: “You B picture actor!” she snarls. Vittorio is replaced by nice, wholesome Oscar (played by Henry Jenkinson with excellent understatement). Charity tells him that she works in a bank.
Sweet Charity is just the job for a company like MYCO. Not only are there some meaty principal roles, but composer Cy Coleman has also provided plenty of strong, tuneful, chorus numbers – Big Spender, The Rhythm of Life, and the thoroughly emotional I Love to Cry at Weddings among them. Using Bob Fosse’s original choreography as a base, director Guy Brigg has cleverly expanded the dance routines to encompass a far larger chorus than Broadway could ever have afforded.
I saw the show at the dress rehearsal, and while one or two of the principals will surely flower further once they have an audience in front of them, everything was very obviously in place for a major MYCO success – not least musical director Julie Todd and her swinging band. But Sweet Charity is nothing without someone good in the title role, and in Kelly Hampson the company has found a real winner: her performance positively glows and sizzles, even in an empty auditorium.
Director Brigg has set some big challenges: for instance, there is a sequence that requires the whole chorus to stand freeze-frame still for several minutes. This requires incredible discipline from everyone concerned, and was superbly realised, as was all the choreography. If a kid of mine was in this show, I would be mighty proud of them.
Giles Woodforde – Oxford Times, 7th April, 2010