Audiences at West End musical opening nights – bless them: they so want to be wowed. So, in the opening minutes of Sweet Charity on Tuesday, their responses seemed to run: Hey, these girls can stand on a revolve without falling over – wild applause! Hey, it's Bonnie Langford's bum – wild applause! Hey, her lover's just pushed her into Central Park Lake – applause just that worrying bit too wild, there...
Langford carries a huge burden as the ever-sanguine dancehall hostess in this revival of Bob Fosse's musical, and no-one can be more conscious than she of the cruel stigma of simply being Bonnie Langford and of having been for so long: not really mutton dressed as lamb (despite sporting facial makeup of an almost Garland/Minnelli-like thickness), she is more lamb which has spent an age in the window display. She has energy, discipline and far more than her fair share of talent – anyone who can execute a routine such as that for "I'm A Brass Band" and then slip effortlessly back into song is blessed with both ability and peak physical condition – but all those years as the postbox-smiling little girl have left their mark, and at root she finds herself unable to move too far from this mode. Sure, she has Charity Hope Valentine's starry-eyed, bouncy indefatigability down pat, but Charity is also tempting and alluring; when her neurotic new beau Oscar (Cornell John), met in a trapped lift, describes her as a "poetical virgin", it must seem the height of delusion, but Langford – for all that she wiggles her equatorial and southern regions at us, for all that she tries brazen seduction on ageing Latin heart-throb Vittorio (Mark Wynter) – cannot come over as remotely sinful.
This problem affects the show as a whole. To put it bluntly, one should not be able to watch so much of Bob Fosse's choreography without feeling at all embarrassingly aroused. Chet Walker has a fine company make all the right moves with impressive vigour and precision, but not even the taxi-dancers' flaunting of themselves in "Big Spender" (a number which ought to combine sheer desperation with efficient enticement) begins to register. It is an admirable show – Cy Coleman's songs and Neil Simon's book alone would see to that – but, for all Walker's and director Carol Metcalfe's efforts, for all that Johanne Murdock and (particularly) Jane Fowler match Langford for energy, not at all a seductive one as it should also be. This is a good-time show, sure enough, but not with the doubleness of entendre that the "Big Spender" girls want us to believe.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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