Book: Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows
Music &Lyrics: Frank Loesser
Director: Gordon Greenberg
Choreographer: Carlos Acosta
Musical Director: Andy Massey
Reviewer: Tim Frost
Guys and Dolls, on paper, seems to be a great way of escaping Day five of the Brexit Blues: Possibly the greatest of the great Broadway Musicals, from the exact mid-point of the 20th Century, it offers a cartoon version of prohibition-era New York, loosely based on characters and stories by Damon Runyan. In brief, the underbelly of New York forms an unlikely alliance with the Salvation Army, with illegal betting, cops, comedy and the odd subplot to keep the story motoring along. This production, originating at the Chichester Festival Theatre, has been running simultaneously in London and on tour and has garnered high praise from critics and audiences.
Frank Loesser’s stunning songs run through the gamut of emotion and most have become standards. This is the musical that includes Luck be a lady tonight, If I were a bell, I’ll know and I’ve never been in love before. These are numbers that fill ‘Best of Broadway’ songbooks and there are few shows which match its perfectly formed marriage of music, lyrics and book. This is a musical which already gets five stars for quality so inevitably the full focus for a review must be the production itself and the quality of singing.
This reviewer sat down with high hopes of escapism and with wonderful memories from previous productions. He experienced the frisson of excitement when those well-loved songs kicked in but was left profoundly disappointed with the overall production. It could just be that everything feels disappointing at the moment, or perhaps that this reviewer was trying too hard to compare it to wonderful memories of standing at the back of the National Theatre for the 1996 revival of Richard Eyre’s sensational production.
In Canterbury, the band sound is over-amplified, which consequently causes voices to be louder than necessary when more than one singer is involved. The male leads’ singing is not always great: Richard Fleeshman has the right dashing charm for likeable gangster Sky Masterton, but in song, his vowel sounds are not always well placed, his diction poor and he swoops unnecessarily onto the notes. Everything else about his performance is top notch but the songs just aren’t good enough. Nathan Detroit, genial host of the moving crap game that is the focus of the show, and a part played by Frank Sinatra in the 1955 film, is taken by Maxwell Caulfield. Jack Edwards, as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, is great fun but his delivery of the ultimate showstopper song, Sit down you’re rockin’ the boat just doesn’t quite click.
To counter this, the female leads are excellent: Louise Dearman brings the exact amount of sweet, naïve sassiness needed for Miss Adelaide. Anna O’Byrne, as Salvation Army sister, Sarah Brown, has a great voice and the best song in the show, If I were a bell. But here the musical direction lets her down and the insistence on swaying the tempi to mirror her drunkenness means it loses much of its marvellous momentum. The freakishly tall Cameron Johnson is the stand out among the support cast as comedy-scary visiting Chicago gangster ‘Big Jule’. He has the perfect deep, theatre filling voice to hammer his leitmotif line: ‘I want to shoot crap’, and then, once the curtain call is in full flow, he transformed into a grinning, laughing, thoroughly nice guy.
The production team have managed to get superstar ballet dancer Carlos Acosta on board to choreograph the dances, which partly take place (in one scene) in his native Havana. Music supervisor Gareth Valentine has also written some additional music for a couple of the dance scenes. This adds a veneer of excitement to the mix but it isn’t enough to positively tip the overall balance of things.
The show is enjoyed hugely by the audience, and many comments were heard praising all aspects of the production. There was a small standing ovation that this reviewer desperately wanted to join but instead found himself silently raging ‘this could have been so much better’! Full marks to the Marlowe, for organising for a real Salvation Army band to be ready and playing just outside the theatre during the interval. This production, for all its disappointments, will hopefully allow new generations to appreciate the joys of Guys and Dolls, truly one of the great pieces of musical theatre.
Runs until 2 July 2016 and continues to tour | Image: Contributed