Sweet Charity, Menier Chocolate Factory, London

Sugar-coated rhythms of life
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The Independent Culture

Sweet Charity – the punchy-tune-packed Broadway musical that Cy Coleman based on Fellini's screenplay for Nights of Cabiria – is so blithe in its mid-Sixties happy, hip worldliness that watching it is a bit like being backed into a corner at a party by a beautiful, mini-skirted girl who insists on face-painting you in bright poster colours. And once she's completed your mug, she even suggests that you open your shirt so that she can do a proto-Banksy on your torso. This girl's behaviour is so smiley and good-humoured that it's cod erotic rather than sexual and that, too, feels good.

The word "feel-good" used to strike some as an abomination. It could be that we have either loosened up or lowered our standards. If the expression did not exist, it would have to be invented for this genuinely – though determinedly – joyous Chocolate Factory revival of the show by Matthew White. He has the benefit of an ace band and orchestrations by Chris Walker that pump up the raunchy wit and brassy bounce of the score even as they scale down the number of instrumentalists. From the titanic tease of the opening notes of "Big Spender" (that come-on of come-ons) through to the little throaty reprises that underscore Neil Simon's never knowingly unknowing book, the band's performance is like having your ears syringed with champagne.

Tamzin Outhwaite makes up in blonde, bobbed personableness what she lacks in vocal variety as the eponymous Teflon-coated kook who wants to be loved and winds up in the post of an American dance-hall hostess (aka soft-sex industry worker). Josefina Gabrielle and Tiffany Graves combine wonderfully witty stoical cynicism as her colleagues with a real depth of acting ability, suggesting that these women have looked hard into the hopeless future that faces them. And talking of combinations – Mark Umbers is one of those lucky men who manage to convert extreme good looks into an ongoing funny event. He's a delight as the uptight tax accountant who gets to crunch the odd number with Charity. And has choreographer Stephen Mear ever failed to deliver? Here he even manages to finesse Fosse (because the dances are less dehumanising) in certain sequences.

But while people around me were in transports of enjoyment, I have to say that this production did not ultimately locate my G-spot. It's like an affectionate spoof of an affectionate spoof. None of the hyper-proficient performers in the technically knock-out ensemble of the "Rhythm of Life" have the remotest real connection with the way of life that is being guyed. The result resembles a game of Chinese whispers where the words have fallen out of fashion even before they are passed. The Menier ought to watch out that the spirit of Forbidden Broadway doesn't become their default disposition.

To 7 March 2010 (020 7907 7060)

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