Has there ever been a more patronising, retrogressive premise for a musical than Neil Simon, Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’ concoction, in which a perennially luckless New York dancer-for-hire makes a self-abasing pursuit of any man who will have her? Though it first appeared exactly 50 years ago, the musical, loosely based on Federico Fellini’s film The Nights of Cabiria, took a paternalistic swipe at the radical impulses of the 1960s, sending both feminism and the counterculture on their way with a pat on the bottom. Quite why the Royal Exchange has programmed this smug, materialistic farrago as festive entertainment is a mystery – except that it suddenly feels like the perfect musical for Donald Trump’s America.
Certainly, there’s a sense that Derek Bond’s production has caught the zeitgeist in ways no one could have quite predicted. The New York depicted here is a world, paradoxically, entirely without charity. Of the show’s two best-known numbers, Big Spender could be the president-elect’s theme song; If My Friends Could See Me Now is a pathetic expression of gratitude for scraps received from a rich man’s table. Obliged to keep herself out of sight in a film star’s apartment while he sleeps with someone else, Charity grabs a handful of sandwiches before hiding under the bed.
Bond makes some attempt to address the piece’s prejudices. The aspirational Baby, Dream Your Dream, in which a pair of taxi dancers contemplate the giddy heights of becoming hat-check girls, is delivered with tart irony by Cat Simmons and Holly Dale Spencer. The charismatic preacher Daddy Brubeck here becomes a Momma: but even though Josie Benson delivers her hands-in-the-air sermon with immense pizazz, it can’t disguise the fact that the number was piloted in to the opening of the second act to cock a snook at unwashed hippies and their distasteful alternative lifestyles.
The production looks and sounds terrific, however. The band, led by Mark Aspinall, is out of this world – though the drummer is so hot he’s been sent to cool off in an isolation booth in the foyer. James Perkins’s set bisects the stage with a grid of golden lights reminiscent of the view from a skyscraper, and Aletta Collins’s choreography is also best appreciated from above, as the linear coordinates of the classic Bob Fosse routines have been broken down into organic patterns that spectacularly bloom across the stage. Above all, Kaisa Hammarlund’s Charity is never less than completely winning in an utterly thankless role. Yet as she careers from one humiliation to the next, you find yourself concurring with the sentiment of the working girl’s anthem she delivers with her fellow hostesses: There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This.
• At Royal Exchange, Manchester, until 28 January. Box office: 0161-833 9833.