Guys and Dolls has been a continuous success story since its first outing in 1950, and in reviewing such an irresistible and indestructible classic it is still worth asking where its secrets lie. The most important reason perhaps resides in the almost perfect blend of book, lyrics and music achieved by Jo Swerling, Abe Burrows and Frank Loesser which creates the two essentials of great musical theatre – a fully imagined dramatic world – ‘Runyonland’ – which captures all the debonair elegance, energy, and suave danger of Broadway gambling in post-war New York, and snappy but romantic dialogue that blends effortlessly into music, thus answering the question of why words and music need to be together.
Add to that four fully developed and contrasting characters as the leads, great chorus numbers, showpiece moments for the band, a film noir setting for design and costumes, sizzling choreography in diverse styles, and you have a complete musical, in the same way that The Marriage of Figaro is the complete opera, with something for everyone both onstage and in the audience.
But a work this fine and familiar is difficult to bring off afresh without risking blandness on the one hand or jejune novelty on the other.
Gordon Greenberg’s Chichester production comes into the Savoy theatre with the hardest of acts (Gypsy) to follow, and succeeds with judicious flair. Set under an impressively gaudy kaleidoscopic tunnel-arch studded with advertising posters this show is technically accomplished, with a burnished energy and panache that is sharper and slicker in all sorts of small ways than in its first Chichester outing.
Gareth Valentine in the pit drives his brassy orchestra hard, but it bears dividends in the set pieces and meshes superbly with the choreography of Carlos Acosta and Andrew Wright, especially in the slinky bravura of theCrapshooters’ Dance and the feisty Latin shapes of the Havana sequence.
Newstand vendor and small-scale crapshooter Nathan Detroit (David Haig) bets high-stakes gambler Sky Masterson (Jamie Parker) $1000 that he cannot persuade prim Miss Sarah Brown (Siubhan Harrison) to leave her Save a Soul Mission and go with him to Havana. He needs the money to finance a crap game, but that in turn may lose him long-term fiancée Miss Adelaide (Sophie Thompson).
This initial gambit releases any number of plot twists, but through the mayhem the couples need to grow together perceptibly – as Sky says, it is ‘all in the chemistry’, and on that count this production is a mixed bag.
The chemistry is truly there between Haig and Thompson, whose rapport gives real meaning even, for example, to a relatively minor song such ‘Sue Me’; but it is not there between Parker and Harrison in the way it was between Parker and Clare Foster in the Chichester production.
There is nothing really wrong with either performance, even if Harrison’s voice is inflexible and a bit harsh in timbre; but through the great, gathering, sequence of romantic songs that mark the climax to Act One, the relationship never warms up or is truly believable. Parker is also now acting and singing in a darker style, more reminiscent of later Sinatra; and while that is a plausible and interesting view, and certainly works wonders with My Time of Day, as a whole I prefer his unselfconscious earlier rendition to this more mannered re-incarnation.
That said, there are some spectacular individual and collective moments in what is a wholly delightful evening. Thompson’s characterisation has not satisfied everyone, but she certainly hit all the right notes of brassy vulgarity and poignant despair in the spectrum of adenoidal suffering that is Miss Adelaide. She deservedly received the loudest ovation of the evening.
David Haig doesn’t have the opportunity here for the kind of lovingly detailed depiction of a put-upon, harassed, well-meaning everyman which he has made his trademark, but his version of Nathan has far more variety and depth to it than his predecessor in the role, and he sings and dances very creditably for someone who is not a musical theatre regular.
Above all, this is a company show, and the abiding memory of this production is the quality of the ensemble singing and dancing and the detailed acting invested in the middle-sized roles. Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat, stopped the show just as it should, but it was a beautifully graded performance as if we were expanding gradually with the pace of Nicely Nicely’s gambling imagination. It was also a fine touch to have a reggae singer of distinction in the role of General Cartwright (Lorna Gale). Her improvised scat singing added an extra layer to the overall achievement of this famous number.
Nor were the other set pieces neglected. The whole sequence underground from the Crapshooters’ Dance through to Luck be a Lady had a cracking pace to it, (including notable atmospheric jets of steam from the set!) and crucially kept something in reserve to the end. Take Back Your Mink provided luxurious contrast at the start of Act Two, and the finale had some carefully recalled details of other numbers which helped tie up some of the loose ends left dangling in the plot.
Gavin Spokes and Ian Hughes had already made their marks as Nicely Nicely and Benny Southstreet in a series of compelling cameo appearances in the earlier scenes. They acted off each other very stylishly and without labouring the jokes. Likewise all the members of the motley gathering of gamblers were given clear and memorable characterisations, with Nic Greenshields especially taking all the time he needed to register the deadpan menace of Big Jule. Back in the Mission Neil McCaul has an understated but pivotal role to play in bringing Sarah and Sky together. His Arvide Abernathy was a crucial humane touchstone for the audience, and his acting really made us listen to the words of More I Cannot Wish You.
Above all there was a grace and fluidity of movement about the production that made the Savoy stage seem as large as Chichester’s apron. There was excellent continuity between all the scenes, and by having the understudies mostly embedded in the ensemble every element in each tableau was carefully knit together: you really felt everyone fully in the groove.
It seems churlish to offer a reservation about such a famous piece of the history of musical theatre; but on hearing this great show again I was struck how there is an almost indecent rush to the conclusion after Marry the Man Today. You really need another fully developed scene in which the four leads tie up the loose dramatic ends before the finale. You could say the same problem affects Showboat too, where a cornucopia of wonderful material is vying for attention and there is just not enough time in a regular evening to tie it all together to complete satisfaction.
That’s no reason not to make a real effort to see this production, which tours nationally until the end of July this year and which will transfer from the Savoy to the Phoenix Theatre from 19 March (with an as yet unannounced cast).