Guys and Dolls
Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows
Royal Exchange Theatre and Talawa Theatre Company
Royal Exchange Theatre
From 02 December 2017 to 27 January 2018
Review by David Chadderton
For its Christmas production, the Royal Exchange has brought back Michael Buffong of Talawa to direct arguably the greatest musical comedy of all time in what has been billed as the first ever all-black Guys and Dolls in the UK.
The publicity relocates the show across town in Harlem, even though the script still has references to Broadway and some Yiddish phrases (like "so nu?" from "Sue Me"), but Damon Runyon's colourful characters and the brilliantly witty dialogue and lyrics still shine through in a lively and energetic production.
Actually the opening musical sequence, "Runyonland", is surprisingly static to set the scene of bustling Broadway (or Harlem) street life, looking restricted on the small Exchange stage, but it gradually explodes into life with a story that is basically a double love story against the backdrop of illegal gambling in New York.
The typical hate-love-hate-happy-ever-after romcom storyline is between high-rolling gambler Sky Masterson, here played perhaps more comic than coolly aloof by Ashley Zhangazha, and Sarah Brown (Abiona Omanua), who is trying to turn around the local Mission (like the Salvation Army in the UK) in a town full of sinners not seeking reform.
The whole thing is kicked off with a bet, of course, made by Sky with "good old reliable Nathan Detroit", as he is described in the song with one of the longest titles in musical theatre. He is the local fixer who finds locations for them to shoot dice while avoiding the keen local policeman Brannigan (Ewen Cummins). Nathan is played by Ray Fearon, a great actor but not perhaps everyone's first choice for a comic role, but he gets across the charm of the character even if the comic delivery isn't quite all there yet.
Nathan has been engaged for 14 years to Adelaide, a night club singer who has convinced her mother in Rhode Island that she is already married with five children. Lucy Vandi's Miss Adelaide isn't the usual squeaky-voiced stripper but more a husky blues singer—her first song in the club therefore exchanges "A Bushel and a Peck" for "Pet Me Poppa", which was written by Loesser for the 1955 film.
Buffong keeps up the pace to allow Swerling and Burrows's sparklingly witty script and Loesser's brilliant wordplay in the lyrics to just crackle along against Loesser's jazzy Broadway score, with such showstoppers as "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat"—possibly the best 11 o'clock number ever written, sung by Ako Mitchell as a very tall Nicely-Nicely Johnson rather than the "fat water buffalo" as he is described by Big Jule—alongside "Luck Be A Lady", "I've Never Been In Love Before", "Guys and Dolls" and more.
Soutra Gilmour's design looks great, with a revolve of worn planks and the dingy drugstore frontage as a backdrop to the bright and colourful costumes. The 9-piece band, literally fenced off out in the hall with the drummer in a shed by himself, sounds great with new jazzy orchestrations from Simon Hale (not to everyone's taste, it seems), although the sound balance wasn't right on press night, with some tinny vocals and the music a bit muddy in parts.
Together with joyful, lively choreography from Kenrick Sandy, this may not be perfect but it is an extremely enjoyable night in the theatre with one of the true greats of Broadway musical history.