Rebel Wilson may be about to launch a Rubensesque Runyonesque assault on the West End, but it is comforting to see that the UK touring production of Guys and Dolls boasts the best, or a better, line-up of major principals since Chichester, where this production began. London might get the “names”, but this tour boasts the exceptional talent.
Since this Gordon Greenberg directed revival of the Loesser (Music and lyrics) Swerling and Burrows (Book) Guys and Dolls first appeared at Chichester, I have seen it five times; twice in Chichester and twice at the Savoy. That final performance at the Savoy was so dreary and so far removed from the joyous, glorious production I had first seen in Chichester that I delayed revisiting the production when it transferred to the Phoenix Theatre. My colleague saw it there, however, and thought highly of it.
So it was with mixed feelings that I travelled to Nottingham to catch the touring version of this production. This was a salutary lesson. Not all touring productions are second rate; indeed, many are first class. Like this one.
In the case of Greenberg’s Guys and Dolls, I have never seen it sung, acted or danced better, with such an ebullient and thoughtful clutch of performances working in harmony; an effervescent joy stimulates and pleases constantly.
The Matcham auditorium at the Theatre Royal is a perfect setting for this production; grand, old-fashioned but twinkling with expectant promise. Peter McKintosh’s clever Broadway light-bulb advertising marquee backdrop sits perfectly at the back of the proscenium stage and Tim Mitchell’s lighting brings the shifts in locale, mood and energy quickly into phase. McKintosh’s colourful cartoonish costumes ice the very appealing cake produced by the perfect blend of these ingredients and the split second timing involved in the scene changes. Somehow it just works/looks better in the Matcham house.
Despite the absence of two actors in major roles, the company worked seamlessly together. There was no “this is my show” nonsense here. The ensemble, a gifted, attractive and fiendishly hardworking collection of young talents, did ample justice to the work of choreographers Carlos Acosta and Andrew Wright, which (again) seems more successful here than it did in Chichester.
Rightly, Guys and Dolls is revered as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, musical comedy ever written. Whatever one thinks about that, it is a show full of pitfalls: it is very long; some scenes are difficult to make convincing; and it simply doesn’t work if all of the attention is focused on Miss Adelaide and her Lament and Nicely-Nicely’s star turn in Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat.
In truth, the show is about Sarah Brown, the beautiful but driven mission girl, and Sky Masterson, the handsome cad with a gambling addiction. The tale of the very long engagement of Hot Box Girl Miss Adelaide and the on-the-make Nathan Detroit is there as an hilarious and touching second storyline, nothing more.
This balance was right in Chichester, despite the best efforts of Sophie Thompson’s gargoyle performance as Adelaide, but it was lost – entirely – when the production transferred to the Savoy.
Happily, in Anna O’Byrne’s fresh, spirited and gloriously sung Sarah and Richard Fleeshman’s virile, matinee idol bad boy Sky, the balance is restored – perfectly. These two anchor the production and give it its fizzy, romantic pulse.
O’Byrne gives a revelatory performance, finding aspects of Sarah hitherto undetected. Her white hot anger at the end of Act One had been carefully prepared for, with peppery exchanges and cold indifference as part of her armoury. This is a smart, stern and unforgiving Sarah who has, despite what she sings in I’ll Know, little understanding of her own emotional feelings and their depth.
This Sarah is about converting sinners, not about spreading the love of the Lord. It’s a crucial character point and one that allows O’Byrne to revel in the extreme situations in which the character finds herself. She learns more about honour and loyalty from her dealings with Sky than from her work as a mission girl.
The Havana scene is a true delight. The more-than-a-little tipsy Sarah is sassy and bold, but also true to her more straight-laced self. Alcohol loosens her corsets and carnal possibilities tumble out. Her singing of If I Were A Bell was perfection, the phrasing sensitive, the top notes floating wisps of glory.
O’Byrne brings out the very best in Fleeshman. Together they delivered a hauntingly beautiful I’ve Never Been In Love Before; both sang with real beauty, the tangible possibility of true love so convincing, the combination of their voices so appropriately dreamy, couples all around me were reaching for their partners’ hands, kissing cheeks or touching heads together in fond rememberence.
Fleeshman too was in top form and his My Time Of Night provided the first insight into the real heart of this gambler extraordinaire. The moment when he looked at O’Bryne’s prone, inebriated Sarah and contemplated what could be before he picked her up and took her back to New York was sizzling; he had the patter, swagger and fast talk down pat, but this revelation of a deep dignity was smartly done.
There is little of the suave crooner about Fleeshman’s performance. He is a straight-talking, cunning man’s man and when he sings, it is with real character, real feeling. His rendition of Luck Be A Lady Tonight is thrilling because he communicates the importance of the outcome of the roll of the dice and every fibre of his (very tall) being is determined to succeed; he sings as though his life will end if Lady Luck abandons him. It’s truly electrifying.
Fleeshman establishes great rapport with the other shady gamblers, and his lovely scene with Adelaide where he scolds her for wanting to change Nathan is nicely judged. He displays an excellent sense of comic timing too, landing many laughs.
He is as adept at casually knocking Big Julie senseless with a well-judged punch as he is at saving Sarah’s honour by lying to Nathan about Havana. Classy and stylish, with his hat jauntily in Marlon Brando mode, Fleeshman is quite a marvellous Sky.
In Maxwell Caulfield and Louise Dearman this production has an exceptional Nathan and Adelaide duo; they are perfectly suited to each other’s style. He is charming, laconic and hopeless, she is charming, laconic and hopeful. It’s a perfect match as Yenta might say.
Both are content to play second fiddle to Sarah and Sky. Dearman is delicious in both her Hot Box numbers, but Take Back Your Mink is pure gold. Her Lament is funny, but with a deeply sad core, which makes it fascinatingly unusual and more affecting than most renditions. Dearman plays up the fantasist aspects of Adelaide to great advantage.
Dearman has a comic charm which is irresistible and it comes happily to the fore in her two duets: Sue Me, with Caulfield, becomes a musical baring of souls as both try bravado to win the day but each realise the depth of love they hold for the other, and Caulfield comes to understand what he has done to the woman he adores; Marry The Man Today is the rip-roaring, unexpectedly wonderful 11 o’clock number it always should be, with both Dearman and O’Bryne in full flight, vocally and physically.
Just as Dearman is an adorable Adelaide, so is Caulfield an irresistible Nathan. His quick smile, easy affability and penchant for glib improvisation combines to ensure Nathan is the “good old reliable” guy the other gamblers sing so brightly about. Caulfield wears a sense of worn-out ambience like aftershave, particularly in the scenes where Big Julie humiliates him in the sewers, but also in his final pleading affirmation of his love for Adelaide. But the joker, the trickster, the chancer is never far away. Delicious.
Unannounced understudies performed the roles of Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Benny Southstreet and Rusty Charlie, but one would never have known. Christopher Howell was a sensational Nicely, vocally in top form, but also funny and kind. He had tremendous support from the Eveready battery that is Aron Wild, who gave Benny a riotous effervescence which was contagious and vastly enjoyable. Fugue For Tinhorns (with Eamonn Cox’ endearing Rusty) and Guys and Dolls, their duet, were standout moments in an evening full of musical high points.
Howell also delivered a stirring and vocally satisfying Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat, with the top of his voice free and fruity. The scat/jazz/riff exchange between Howell and Melanie Marshall’s full blooded, rip-roaring General Cartwright in the middle of the hullabaloo involving the entire cast in that number worked for me for the first time, with Marshall showing Howell the way – as a good mission gal should. The encores were richly deserved.
Peter Harding is in exceptional form as the adorable, but slightly cheeky, Arvide, and his delivery of More I Cannot Wish You was faultless; he turned a moment that can be clunky into a tearful moment of fatherly ecstasy.
There was good work too from Cameron Johnson as a touchy, terrifically tall Big Julie, Craig Pinder as a smart big-mouth Harry The Horse (he was a fetching transvestite Nun too) and Anthony McGill as the dour, suspicious Lieutenant Brannigan, always hunting for the crap game but only finding crap explanations (he set up a terrific laugh for Howell’s Nicely too).
The ensemble was awash with exceptional talent but standout work was done by Jonny Godbold, Bethany Linsdell, Jamal Crawford, Ruthie Stephens, Kiel Payton and Danielle Stephen.
Between them Gareth Valentine, Andy Massey, Larry Blank and Mike Steel are responsible for the orchestra, the arrangements and the musical matters. The singing was, throughout, joyful, the harmonies crisp and clean and the sense of the propulsion of the score thorough and precise. Tempi were brisk, diction was excellent: musically, this rocked.
This is the finest incarnation of Greenberg’s production of Guys and Dolls so far, mainly because no attempt is made by Dearman or Caulfield to overstep the mark, but also because O’Bryne and Fleeshman are so superb.
Why this cast isn’t playing the West End is a question for the Spinx. But it is excellent news for the regions of the UK where this unbeatable cast is performing.