Book: Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, from Damon Runyon’s short stories
Music and Lyrics: Frank Loesser
Director: Gordon Greenberg
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Runyonland is a strange place. It inhabits Broadway, but it’s not the glitzy neon Broadway; no Runyonland is the seedier underbelly, a Broadway of the Great Depression and Prohibition, peopled by those outside the law: hoodlums and criminals of all shades and sizes, all looking for a fast buck. But Runyonland, which exists in the stories of Damon Runyon written between 1930 and 1946, is not a true representation of gangland New York: his characters speak in Runyonese, a mixture of the highly formal and slang, a language with a rhythm and beauty of its own. Runyonland, like Broadway, is always busy as we see, for example, in the opening numbers: Overture/Runyonland and Fugue for Tinhorns. And, crucially, in Runyonland even the bad guys are good. They rarely cheat, always keep their word and always acknowledge and pay their debts; honour among thieves, indeed.
Populating Runyonland are our main characters: Nathan Detroit, who earns a living by running an illegal crap game that somehow stays one step ahead of the police; Detroit’s lieutenants, Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Benny Southstreet; and his fiancée of 14 years, Miss Adelaide. Detroit is struggling to find a new location for his illegal games – owners of likely rooms want cash up front to cover their risk and until the game happens, Detroit is broke. Enter high-roller Sky Masterson and the Save a Soul Mission: to raise his cash, Detroit makes a bet he surely can’t lose, betting Masterson $1000 he cannot persuade the beautiful and godly Sergeant Sarah Brown to accompany him, Masterson, to Havana.
At this point early in Act One, the likely outcomes are obvious to the audience: we expect twists and turns along the way and get them, but it all pans out as we expect in this, maybe the ultimate feel-good musical.
Peter Mackintosh’s set design is abstract but successful in setting and supporting the mood. A fan of brightly lit advertising signs that are blinding and subtle by turns, it nevertheless is moveable to suggest the New York cityscape, the Hot Box, where Miss Adelaide performs in burlesque, the Mission and, memorably, Cuba – for Masterson, at least, travels there.
The job of director Gordon Greenberg is made easier by the beautifully integrated music and book that ensure the characters are rounded, sympathetic and full of humour. He is sensitive to the rhythm of the story, ensuring we are ensnared by the world of Runyon’s imagination. He is further supported by the balletic and at times quite beautiful choreography of Carlos Acosta and Andrew Wright. If there is a criticism, it is that the final denouement seems rushed and sudden compared to the measured pace before but if this is a fault, it is a fault of the book and music, not of the company’s making.
And what of the company? Maxwell Caulfield’s petty criminal, Detroit, is well drawn in his slightly shabby appearance. Torn by his twin loves of Miss Adelaide and cash, he often conflicts, but at his core he is honourable. Richard Fleeshman’s Masterson is masterful. A very fine singing voice and a rakish way make us warm to him even as he seeks to deceive Sarah Brown in order to win his bet. Yet he also is honourable, ensuring he honours his debts and, ultimately, follows his heart.
Bethany Lindsell’s Sarah Brown’s descent as she unwittingly drinks alcohol and loosens up, and her subsequent disappointment and epiphany are a joy to watch, even if her singing voice sometimes feels a touch fragile.
Much of the humour comes from Louise Dearman in the guise of Miss Adelaide and Jack Edwards’ Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Mark Sangster’s Benny Southstreet. Dearman’s comic timing and pathos are second to none and her delivery of the two Miss Adelaide’s Laments and Sue Me (with Caulfield) are unexpectedly moving as she opens her heart. She manages to combine toughness and vulnerability well. Edwards is memorable as Johnson, especially as he bursts into song in the Mission with Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat.
Guys and Dolls is a musical with a beating heart: a joyous evening out in the company of truly iconic characters.
Runs until 23 July 2016 and on tour | Image: Anna O’Byrne