“I’M a new mummy, so I get a bit muddled,” the star of “Sweet Charity”, Verity Hunt-Ballard, tells “CityNews”.
Not so muddled that she can’t manage to play the perennially optimistic dance hall girl Charity Hope Valentine at Canberra Theatre Centre in February.The big songs “Big Spender”, “The Rhythm Of Life” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now” are well known, but this close-up version (described as “ballsy”) is the one that astonished audiences at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre earlier this year and won Hunt -Ballard a Helpmann Award for “Best Female Actor in a Musical”.
A Sydney production is one thing, but the packing needed to take 20-month-old Emmylou with her on tour is perplexing her a bit right now.
“I very much enjoy being a mother,” she says, and she’s bringing Emmylou along because “it’s all going so quickly.”
Luckily her partner, actor Scott Johnson, isn’t working over the holiday season and producer Lisa Campbell, a mother herself, has supported her in this aim.
In this show she plays the sadly hopeful Charity Hope Valentine in a refreshing slant on the 1966 Neil Simons-Bob Fosse musical that was itself inspired by a Fellini film.
“It’s been a wonderful journey,” she says of both her role and of the “incredible support from my family”. Actresses have been mothers since time immemorial, but with the advent of the internet and mobile phones it’s been a lot easier for her than in the bad old days when, as former “Sweet Charity” star Nancye Hayes has reminded her, performing mothers left their children with total strangers.
Hunt-Ballard is no stranger to Australian audiences, having shot to fame as Mary Poppins in the 2011 Disney and Cameron Mackintosh touring production.
But her present role “can be quite unnerving for a mum, though I bring maturity to it,” she says. During the tight three weeks’ rehearsal, she “got in and dug deep”, finding that, like Charity Hope Valentine, “you can’t give up”.
Hunt-Ballard and her fellow actors take Neil Simon’s script very seriously and as well they’ve been going back to the “very gritty” Fellini film in the hope of making the story less a psychedelic Broadway musical in the manner of the Shirley MacLaine movie and a little darker, like Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria”.
For no matter how you try to package it, girls like Charity Hope Valentine, unmarried, with no education, had to sell sex to survive.
“If I don’t turn tricks, I don’t eat,” she says, so Charity Hope Valentine only once shows signs of shame when she sings “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This”.
And Neil Simon’s “so clever, so funny” script gets laughs in the sad scene where she applies for a job at an office.
Hunt Ballard has invented a life-story for Charity Hope Valentine, imagining her as an orphan who likes to amuse people. She was flattered when actor Geoffrey Rush dashed up to her after a performance and said: “You know Verity, she’s a clown, just like a commedia dell’arte clown.”
And the part feels real.
“We’ve all been rejected,” Hunt-Ballard says, so her song “Where Am I Going?” draws tears from the audience.
The production, directed by Dean Bryant and choreographed by Andrew Hallsworth, has been much-praised for its stripped-back aspects, but Hunt-Ballard is quick to assert that they’ve stayed true to Neil Simon and to Bob Fosse’s extraordinary choreography.
So what’s it been like transitioning from super-confident, “physically refined” and “otherworldly” Mary Poppins to down-at-the-heels Charity Hope Valentine?
“It was a bit of a slog at first – so full-on,” she says. But then fellow star Martin Crewes, told her: “You feel that because you are a mum”, so she used all her “tiredness and hormonal stuff” to fill out the role.
In the end, with the uncanny similarity of the names Verity and Charity, friends started sending her cards addressed to Charity Hunt-Ballard.
“Sweet Charity”, at The Playhouse, February 11-21, bookings to canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700.