One of the truisms of musical theatre is that it’s big. Big emotions, big outfits, a chorus line three-deep and stars belting out anthems to the bleachers.

So what happens when you take a Broadway musical, directed by Bob Fosse on stage as well as on screen, and plonk it in a venue that makes Belvoir look like the Colosseum? The Hayes Theatre Co. has taken over the old, and tiny Darlinghurst Theatre, and are billing it as the new home for musical theatre and cabaret in Sydney. Spearheaded by production companies, directors and producers, they’ve opened with Sweet Charity, the Neil Simon/Cy Coleman/Fosse retooling of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria as dance-hall extravaganza.

Fellini’s heroine is a prostitute. Her titular counterpart in the musical works at a dance hall in New York City in the 1960’s. Charity dances with men for a price, and the question of what else she might do is left deliberately vague. So the role isn’t a completely sanitised version of the more degraded original; there’s still plenty of meat on the bone for an actress, and in Verity Hunt-Ballard, the ex-Mary Poppins, this production has hit pay dirt. Hunt-Ballard sings and dances like a pro, but her comic ability is virtuoso. Her timing is so good it’s invisible; she’s a riot precisely because her line readings are so unpredictable. I’ve never seen the movie version with Shirley MacLaine, but Hunt-Ballard might give even her pause.

Just as impressive is Martin Crewes, who plays the two main male roles, as well as a third minor one. As the Italian movie star Charity runs into, Crewes has great fun riffing on the smooth Mastroianni-type. It looks effortless, which only makes his transformation into Oscar, the sweet suitor with anxiety issues, all the starker. It’s a plum of a role, and Crewes eats it alive. The intimacy of the space works wonders too, especially in the show’s most emotional moments. The actors can play the small stuff. The prodigious Dean Bryant has come up with a show that’s both spectacular and intimate at the same time. As an opening salvo, this space could scarcely have found a better showcase.

Sweet Charity plays until March 9 at Hayes Theatre.

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