At the Phoenix Theatre, Guys and Dolls shakes the ashes aside.
When you see a guy reach for stars in the sky
You can bet that he’s doing it for some doll
An interesting, ironic quote from a show in which the greater part of the story is spent watching men objectifying women and avoiding commitment.
But all is not lost. As in all good fairy stories love wins out in the end. Guys and Dolls has a long history: having premiered on Broadway in 1950 it was made into a successful movie in 1955. This revival by director Gordon Greenberg premiered in the Chichester Festival in 2015 then transferred to the Savoy Theatre where its West End run was so successful it has now transferred to The Phoenix Theatre, while a national tour of the same production entertains the regions. Not many productions receive such an enthusiastic reception.
The original stories by Damon Runyon are definitely fairy tales. He has swapped the traditional fairyland of castles and woods, wicked wolves and distressed damsels for a version of New York City peopled with gangsters and distressed damsels in the form of a religious Mission girl and a nightclub dancer. Then he calls them Guys and Dolls and gives them a language style all of their own.
The musical, adapted by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling from Runyon’s stories, centres around two quite different couples. One is Nathan Detroit, a long time organiser of illegal dice games, and his even longer time fiancé, nightclub performer Miss Adelaide. Detroit is set to run out on Miss Adelaide yet again when his dice game holds him in town, ultimately giving Miss Adelaide time to get her man. There have been many cast changes since the Chichester season and currently starring as this pair is Samantha Spiro and Richard Kind.
Spiro gives a stellar performance, bringing new life and charm to this classic role. Her songs are all a joy of multiple layers of character and they surprise and delight the audience.
As her slippery fiancé, Richard Kind suitably acts the foil to his charming Miss Adelaide and builds the tension in their will-they-or-won’t-they-marry story that is satisfied by the wedding at the final curtain. His performance is good, but on this particular day it lacked the brilliance that would lift it to the extraordinary.
The other couple waltzes in quite different territory. The wolf in this fairytale comes in the form of gambler Sky Masterson, played in this production by Oliver Tompsett. There is no doubt that Tompsett is a wonderful singer. His delivery of the songs is a joy.
Playing his damsel in distress, Sarah Brown, the Mission girl, is Siubhan Harrison. This is a gift of a role and Harrison plays the part with panache and suitable whimsy, easily charming the audience into supporting her along the rocky road to true love.
It’s the frisson in the relationship between this couple that the performance misses. The tension between the two would-be-lovers isn’t established sufficiently well to carry the Havana sequence at the end of Act One. This is a lengthy scene with essentially just the two of them, three songs and a lot of alcohol. It is meant to be the zenith of their attraction, the moment when both realise that, after all, they love each other. But the pair do not lay down the groundwork sufficiently well; it’s just not believable that this Sky suddenly proclaims that he’s in love with this Sarah – however keen one is to suspend belief!
The rest of the cast is superb.
Gavin Spokes shines in his role of Nicely-Nicely Johnson, a fun-filled character with a powerful singing voice. The show’s opening number, the well loved Fugue For Tinhorns, a trio with fellow Guys Rusty and Benny delivers everything a devotee of the show could expect. Benny is terrific too and the pairing with Spokes is spot-on throughout the show. Spokes’ big moment, Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat, is a big highlight in this Guys and Dolls.
Also deserving special accolades are Billy Boyle as Arvide Abernathy and Lorna Gayle as General Cartwright. Both play their characters with style and sing up a storm.
Guys and Dolls has a score by Frank Loesser containing hit song after hit song, and dance routines that make the most of the opportunities provided. With musical direction by Gareth Valentine and choreography created by Carlos Acosta and Andrew Wright, the singing and dancing content of this production doesn’t fail to delight. Every expectation is met.
Executing this fabulous material is a cast of outstanding performers. Each one has character and charisma and is fully engaged and engaging.
Peter McKintosh’s design is exciting and clever in its use of the space and the ways scenes change. The colours are as bold and bright as the show itself. Lighting this set is Tim Mitchell who moulds and shapes the mood with a flick of the switch.
Special mention needs to be made of the sound design by Paul Groothuis. Sound design is an element of production easily noticed when it goes wrong, so when the sound design is as good as the one here, it deserves to be heralded from atop a high hill. Mr Groothuis – take a bow!
Lastly, but most importantly, Gordon Greenberg has directed Guys and Dolls with an assured hand, paying homage to the roots of the piece whilst stamping this production with his own style.
Guys and Dolls may have been written over half a century ago, but the story and music can still be enjoyed today by audiences of all ages, especially when the production, like this one, shines like a new penny.