There will not be light

Next to Normal, Doorstep Arts in association with Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, January 15.

Sweet Charity, Sydney Opera House, January 16, 2015

IF there is a choice to be made between darkness and light, musical theatre will tend to go for the latter. It’s just how it is. Indeed, Next to Normal, a musical in which the central figure suffers from bipolar disorder, ends on that note literally. The last lustily sung phrase from the ensemble is: “There will be” – big pause – “light”.

It’s an absurd, sentimental conclusion to a work that wants to have it both ways – to have dark subject matter but to end on a note of warm optimism. Next to Normal requires its audience to take an impossible leap of faith, based on the evidence the musical sets out before us.

Diana is a mother and wife who, in addition to being bipolar, struggles with anxiety, depression and episodes of delusion. Really, though, the key source of anguish is deeply rooted grief that Diana cannot or will not relinquish.

Natalie O'Donnell (foreground) in Next to Normal. Photo: Yael Stemple

Natalie O’Donnell (foreground) in Next to Normal. Photo: Yael Stemple

This second thread gives Next to Normal its narrative twist and funkiest musical number (I’m Alive) but the intertwining of debilitating mental illness and personal loss feels manipulative. Brian Yorkey’s book and lyrics are undoubtedly sincere in intent but make no persuasive case. If there’s a platitudinous way to say something, it will be found. (Apparently “the price of love is loss but we love anyway”. Ugh.) Likewise, Tom Kitt’s music is generic rock-pop with a strong and regular beat and no great emotional complexity. As to the medical insights Next to Normal offers, the less said the better.

That it won the 2010 the Pulitzer Prize for drama is a mystery for the ages.

Nevertheless, Geelong’s Doorstep Arts does interesting things with the show and I particularly admired Natalie O’Donnell’s Diana. A set consisting of a few rostra and chalk outlines economically conveys Diana’s dislocation and O’Donnell’s warmth and raw honesty appeal strongly. The supporting cast of five works its heart out for director Darylin Ramondo (she could afford to dial down the energy level) and overall makes a good fist of this very flawed show. And I must say it worked rather better for me than did Melbourne Theatre Company’s 2011 production. So that’s a win for regional theatre.

While the little Hayes Theatre Co hosts Next to Normal, its smash hit from last year, Sweet Charity, has burst out of indie-land and started a series of top-end-of-town seasons. Its first port of call is the Sydney Opera House, where Dean Bryant’s production makes a raucous, confident move to the Playhouse stage. (One degree of separation: Bryant directed MTC’s Next to Normal.)

Crucially, Verity Hunt-Ballard is even more luminous this year than last as Charity Hope Valentine, the unschooled, trusting dance-hall hostess – okay, prostitute – whose sweetness and optimism are painfully tested at every turn.

Around her the production is louder and more garish (and The Rhythm of Life number still doesn’t earn its keep, no matter how much everyone loves it) but the clear-sighted vision that made last year’s incarnation so persuasive is still there. Charity may have knocked around a bit but she isn’t so hardened that she can’t be crushed. Sweet Charity originally ended with Charity shrugging philosophically and an assurance to the audience that she’ll keep plugging away with good cheer.

Hunt Ballard’s Charity offers no such comfort. When her dream of escape evaporates there is nothing but desolation.

There will not be light.

Next to Normal ends February 1. Sweet Charity ends in Sydney on February 8. Canberra, February 11-21; Melbourne, February 25-March 8; Wollongong, March 11-15.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on January 19.

Sweet Charity

Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, February 13

HAYES Theatre Co came into being when Darlinghurst Theatre Company vacated its tiny 19 Greenknowe Ave premises in Potts Point, having become the resident company at the spiffy new Eternity Playhouse. Sydney City Council, which spent about $8 million on the transformation of the former Baptist church into a beautiful 200-seat theatre, then asked for expressions of interest in Greenknowe Ave.

A group of savvy but itinerant music-theatre presenters seized the moment and formed a consortium with the very pragmatic name of Independent Music Theatre and a most laudable goal: to provide Sydney with a permanent home for regular productions of musicals and cabaret. IMT won the bid, had a successful Pozible fundraiser to give the theatre a bit of a facelift – petite chandeliers in the foyer! – and gave itself a more user-friendly name to use in public: Hayes Theatre Co. The name pays tribute to Nancye Hayes, who was cheered to the echo on the opening night of Hayes Theatre Co’s first show, Sweet Charity.

Girls on chairs

It was a rather glamorous evening, actually, although I suspect there will be less glamour behind the scenes as producers work to big-city standards on low budgets. Tickets to Sweet Charity are a measly $49; the producers may have to rethink the pricing strategy when – and we must hope it’s when – you can’t get one of the 110 available seats for any money.

Sweet Charity set the bar high for what is to follow. It was produced by David Campbell, Lisa Campbell, Richard Carroll and Neil Gooding, all highly experienced in the field. The cast was headed by Verity Hunt-Ballard (Mary Poppins) and Martin Crewes (loads of large-scale musicals here and on the West End) and the creative team featured the almost ubiquitous Dean Bryant as director (worldwide associate director of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert etc etc et al), Andrew Hallsworth as choreographer (Priscilla, loads of Production Company and Melbourne Theatre Company shows) and, get this, Oscar, BAFTA and AFI winner Tim Chappel on costumes.

With this kind of commitment it’s hard not to be reminded that the small Menier Chocolate Factory (180 seats) has become a big player on London’s theatrical landscape. Limited means don’t have to equate to limited results. In fact, it can be revelatory to see on an intimate scale work that was premiered splashily. Australia lacks London’s depth, it is true, but it’s pleasing to think that work developed at Hayes Theatre Co could have a life elsewhere.

And now to Sweet Charity, which has been downsized and dirtied up in a way that not only suits the theatre but also is very much to the benefit of the piece. I was somewhat reminded of the extraordinary John Doyle production of Sweeney Todd I saw on Broadway some years ago. Todd is frequently done by opera companies in the grandest manner; here there was scarcely any set, the re-orchestrated score was played by actor-singers who never left the stage (Patti LuPone’s Mrs Lovett on tuba, if you can imagine that) and the effect was shattering. Similarly, Chicago is still running on Broadway 17 years after its stripped-down appearance as part of New York’s Encores series.

Sweet Charity, of course, is no Sweeney Todd (or Chicago). Some of Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’s songs and lyrics still have a little currency – who doesn’t recognise the tough six-note statement that introduces Big Spender? – but Charity is very much of its time. Within moments of the start Charity’s boyfriend steals her bag and throws her in a lake; later a film star hides her in a cupboard while he entertains his girlfriend; later still she is dumped because her new man can’t get over her “past”. Sex and sentimentality collide, and all this is supposed to be really rather amusing and Charity a good sport.

Nevertheless, Bryant’s conception of Sweet Charity shows how powerful it can be to have to think small. In large-scale productions, when Charity sings I’m a Brass Band you’re likely to get just that. On a stage roughly the size of two dozen hankies, it’s less easy to pretend that Charity Hope Valentine, a dancer stuck in a crumby dive, is just a sweet little goofball whose romantic mishaps pass as quickly and painlessly as summer rain.

On a dark, almost bare stage (set design Owen Phillips, lighting Ross Graham) with a hard-edged band up the back, Bryant eliminates most of the dubious sentimentality that can make Sweet Charity a decidedly icky affair. These days, who wants to chuckle indulgently at a poor, barely educated young woman working at the fringes of the sex industry? To counter that the design team creates the mood of a seedy nightspot, with just a few screens and some basic chairs; performers hang around the edges to get changed and Bryant and choreographer Hallsworth have men circling women like hyenas in search of a feed. After all, Nickie (Debora Krizak) does describe the Fandango Ballroom work this way: “We defend ourselves to music.”

There is a downside, though. In many ways Bryant’s muscular, stripped-down approach makes Sweet Charity’s flaws even more obvious (Neil Simon was responsible for the flabby book), and he doesn’t find a way of making sense of one of Sweet Charity’s biggest musical hits, Rhythm of Life. It’s rather rushed through, presumably because it is an odd fit in this crepuscular world.

Big Spender, always an ironic number, works a treat and Rich Man’s Frug is a Surrealist delight thanks to Chappel’s costumes and Hallsworth’s splendid choreography.

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity Hope Valentine

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity Hope Valentine

Leaving her long stint as Mary Poppins well behind her, Hunt-Ballard is a shiny-eyed, exceedingly likeable Charity who carries the show with tremendous verve. Touchingly, this Charity is much more intelligent and resourceful than she gives herself credit for, although Hunt-Ballard could usefully find a little more vulnerability. You don’t really sense the extent of her damage, although the ending shows she has it in her. All the women (and one man) of the Fandango Ballroom are wonderful, with Krizak outstanding in two roles.

Crewes, playing all Charity’s men friends, is a super-sexy Vittorio, an over-nerdy Oscar and could with profit turn the dial down – he’s a man used to commanding 2000-seat auditoriums; here the audience is practically sitting on his knee.

Speaking of which, there is little to match the thrill of theatre seen right up close. Sweet Charity may be a problematic piece but the work done on it by this small, highly expert team is exceptional. Next up from March 14: The Drowsy Chaperone, produced by Squabbalogic. Can’t wait.

Ends March 9.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on February 17.