Saturday 25 March 2023

Theatre review: Guys & Dolls

After successes with Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night's Dream, Nicholas Hytner applies the Bridge Theatre's signature promenade staging to a musical for the first time. As classic Broadway musicals go, Frank Loesser (music & lyrics,) Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows' Guys & Dolls seems to be permanently ripe for revival - its last West End run was in 2015/16. Weaving together two of Damon Runyon's "Runyonland" short stories of petty crooks and gamblers in 1930s' New York, its central event is a floating craps game organised by Nathan Detroit (Daniel Mays.) With gambling illegal, a new venue has to be found every time to keep the police guessing, and the only spot available for tomorrow night's game will cost him $1000 up front.

Nathan doesn't have it, but thinks he can get it from big-money gambler Sky Masterson (Andrew Richardson) if he can con him with an eccentric enough bet - he challenges Sky to charm any woman of his choosing into going to Havana with him for dinner.

This kicks off the second plotline as Nathan chooses Salvation Army missionary Sarah Brown (Celinde Schoenmaker) as Sky's mark. The puritanical Sarah should be impossible to flirt with, but she's failed to make an impact on Broadway's sinners and her mission is at risk of being shut down, so Sky has an idea of an offer he can make to save her mission in return for a date with him. Showing its roots in multiple short stories, the plot is a fairly loose collection of schemes and flights from the police, all while the two central couples get over a variety of comic obstacles to ending up together.

Mays' Nathan is a typically comically shifty character who always seems to be spinning around on his heels, while Richardson and Schoenmaker make for a charming sparring couple. Completing the central quartet, though, Marisha Wallace makes the night club singer Miss Adelaide the centre of the show: While still undoubtedly funny, with the ever-escalating family life she's invented to keep her mother happy, Nathan's perpetual fiancée with a psychosomatic cold is never the butt of the joke. Instead she's a surprisingly strong figure, not so much too stupid to see he's stringing her along, as too patient and determined to cut her losses.

It goes without saying that Wallace delivers some impressive vocals, but lucking out the most in terms of showstopping moments is Cedric Neal, who as Nicely-Nicely Johnson gets both the title song (a duet with Mark Oxtoby's Benny) and the crowd-pleasingly energetic 11 o'clock number "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat." Among the supporting cast there's notable turns from Anthony O’Donnell as Sarah's grandfather, and Cameron Johnson as the booming-voiced gangster Big Jule, whose arrival from Chicago suddenly sends the craps game in a much darker direction.

As ever, the promenade show features a Bunny Christie set where platforms rise and fall from the ground level, and a small army of crew members marshalling the groundlings to where they need to stand next. And as ever, this means this is probably two completely different experiences depending on whether you see it as a groundling or from a seat. Having ended up in a fair bit of discomfort the one time I did the former, I've stuck to the latter ever since - plus, with the pit promoted as the best view of the show, some of the seats are actually cheaper than standing. So I can only speak for the experience of looking down at the action.

From this perspective the staging certainly gives Christie's neon-lit designs a visual boost - it's a great-looking show. But despite a few moments of audience interaction (one audience member will no doubt remember a couple of, er, elements of Wallace's performance for many years to come) the visible crowd doesn't feel as essential as it did for the two Shakespeares that preceded it. Personally I didn't know if I needed another Guys & Dolls just yet, and haven't entirely changed my mind about that. (I booked because I thought it would make a good birthday present for my mum; she hadn't seen the musical before, and loved it.) Outside of the staging there's little that breaks with tradition (except for Sky and Sarah's adventures in a Havana gay bar,) but if I didn't find it essential it still made for an enjoyable afternoon, that looks good and sounds even better.

Guys and Dolls by Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, based on stories by Damon Runyon, is booking until the 2nd of September at the Bridge Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

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