Guys and Dolls

Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows
Chichester Festival Theatre
The Lyceum Sheffield

Louise Dearman and the Hot Box Girls Credit: Johan Persson

Based on a set of short stories by Damon Runyon, Guys and Dolls evokes, not the glamour of Broadway, but the seamy underbelly of New York in the Depression years, where everyone is out to make a fast buck.

The plot revolves around a bet between Nathan Detroit, an ‘entrepreneur’ who sets up crap games and Sky Masterson renowned for risk taking and placing sky-high bets.

Masterson boasts that he can get any ‘doll’ to go with him to Havana, so Detroit, who urgently needs to find $1,000 to pay for a venue for his crap game, nominates Sarah Brown, the prim leader of a Christian Mission, committed to saving sinners particularly from the evils of gambling.

Written in 1950, Frank Loesser’s music and lyrics and Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows’s book still sparkle with fun and wit and are as fresh and appealing today as they were to the original Broadway audiences.

The music is exciting, familiar, full of blasts on the brass and as effective in the quieter romantic numbers as in the rhythmic full company set pieces which regularly punctuate the action. Among many favourites are the night club scene in Havana, "Luck Be a Lady" and the brilliant act 2 showstopper "Sit Down, You’re Rockin' the Boat".

Choreographers Carlos Acosta and Andrew Wright provide dynamic dance routines which are distinguished by athleticism and tremendous attention to detail. In Havana a narrative runs through the action in which individual dancers are clearly characterised and a complex story told.

While the full company routines are a thrilling aspect of this production, it is left to the four principal characters to carry the action.

Richard Fleeshman is an elegant Masterson with a convincing American accent and style to go with it. Unfortunately, his tendency to perform in profile to the audience, means that his face is often masked by a hat and the voice occasionally muffled, particularly when in competition with the brass players. This improves in the second half.

As Sarah Brown, Anna O’Byrne looks suitably prim in her Mission uniform, but the voice is often quite strident and there is little subtlety in the performance. She misses an opportunity for humour in the Havana scene and, even when she casts off her Mission uniform, she hangs on to her inhibitions.

At the heart of this production is the relationship between Maxwell Caulfield as Nathan and Louise Dearman who is outstanding as Miss Adelaide. Caulfield’s acting performance is subtle and persuasive as he negotiates the difficult territory between his love for Adelaide and his reluctance to commit himself to marriage after 14 years and five notional children.

Dearman is undoubtedly the star of the show. She sings beautifully and draws out the wit in the lyrics and entertaining dialogue with a light touch and consumate ease. She is a dominant figure whenever she is on stage, and in the nightclub scene in the first half her dancing is impressive and draws the eye.

In a supporting role, Jack Edwards as Nicely-Nicely Johnson gives full value to the comic potential of the character, is also a dominant presence on stage and carries the thrilling ensemble performance of "Sit Down, You’re Rockin' the Boat" near the end of the show.

The visual aspects of the production are impressive. Peter McKintosh’s set provides flashing lights and glitz for the cabaret and night club scenes but adapts effectively for the sombre setting of the Mission and the street scenes. His costumes are a delight, especially the outrageous checked suits sported by several members of the cast. Tim Mitchell provides effective and often beautiful lighting effects, like the shafts of light in the late crap game scene.

The production which originated at Chichester Festival Theatre is in the middle of a long tour which finishes on July 30.

Reviewer: Velda Harris

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