Book: Jo Swerling & Abe Burrows
Music & Lyrics: Frank Loesser
Director: Michael Buffong
Reviewer: May Mellstrom
The Christmas production at the Royal Exchange is always a highlight of the festive period, providing a welcome alternative in the panto season. Widely regarded as one of the finest Broadway musicals of all time, Guys and Dolls can hardly be considered a gamble in itself but director Michael Buffong certainly cannot be accused of playing it safe.
A co-production between the Royal Exchange and Talawa Theatre Company, this Guys and Dolls is notable for being the first in the UK to feature an all-black cast. This emulates the 1976 Broadway revival but goes further by relocating the action entirely to 1939 Harlem and drawing from the musical influences of the time.
The book from Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows draws inspiration from the stories of Damon Runyon and the mix of gangsters and dreamers who populated his tales. Lifelong gambler Nathan Detroit seeks to organise an illegal crap game despite promising his fiancee of fourteen years Miss Adelaide that he has gone straight. In order to raise the funds for the game, Nathan bets highroller Sky Masterson that he can’t take local Save-a-Soul missionary Sarah Brown for dinner in Havana.
One of the funniest musicals of the Broadway golden age, Swerling and Burrows’ book is ageless, with one-liners aplenty that have lost none of their wit over time. As Nathan, Ray Fearon shows particularly strong comic timing and he perfectly delivers each wisecrack and quip for maximum laughs.
Frank Loesser’s sumptuous score is packed full of hits, from the luscious melodies of I’ve Never Been in Love Before to the toe-tapping Luck Be A Lady and lyrically inventive If I Were a Bell. Orchestrations from Simon Hale give a jazzier feel to the score, most apparent in the decision to replace Adelaide’s famous number A Bushel and a Peck with Pet Me, Poppa, a song written only for the 1955 film version. The latter suits the overall blues-tinged sound better but lacks the sheer fun of the former. Consequently here and in Adelaide’s Lament, the show loses its two big comedy moments, with Lucy Vandi’s Adelaide not the slightly ditzy, eccentric character often portrayed, but instead possessing a steeliness and inner strength that, despite the roguish charm of Fearon’s Nathan, makes one question why she has put up with him for so long.
Ashley Zhangazha and Abiona Omonua ooze the all-important ‘chemistry’ as Sky and Sarah and their sequence in Havana is a highlight; the stage is transformed with a burst of colour, style and dynamic choreography from Kenrick Sandy.
There is a terrific supporting performance from the ever-reliable Ako Mitchell as Nicely-Nicely Johnson who gets the biggest reaction of the night with his glorious rendition of Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat and the ensemble numbers and routines are full of an infectious spirit that make full, impressive use of the stage.
Guys and Dolls has an irresistible appeal and with a near perfect book and score one cannot help but be swept along in the sheer unbridled joy of it all. Buffong’s re-staging is ambitious and although not completely successful it gives a unique twist to timeless material. Enjoyable and entertaining throughout, for an alternative musical treat Guys and Dolls is well worth putting your money on this Christmas.
Runs until 27 January 2018 | Image: Manuel Harlan