Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Guys And Dolls

Music and lyrics Frank Loesser; Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, based on stories by Damon Runyon
Royal Exchange Theatre Company and Talawa Theatre Company
Royal Exchange
02 December 2017 to 03 February 2018

One of the greatest of all evergreen Broadway musicals, Guys And Dolls hit the stage in 1950, a gem, perfectly polished, and, apart from various re-orchestrations, countless revivals ever since have seen little or no need to muck around with it.

According to Wikipedia there has been just the one major previous professional all-Black cast production, on Broadway, in 1976.

So, this joint staging from Talawa and the Royal Exchange is the first in the UK to use all-Black performers.

It also claims to have moved the show’s location across town a little, from Broadway to Harlem, though, confusingly, the constant references to Broadway in the original have been retained. It also stays in the 1930s period of the original Damon Runyon tales on which the show is based.

The idea of the all-Black casting is, I suppose, to give a new slant on the show and offer opportunities for performers who wouldn’t normally be cast…

For those who don’t know…Luck Be A Lady, I’ve Never Been In Love Before, Guys And Dolls and Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat, are the songs  taken out of context that became famous in their own right but the score has much more depth, in its character pieces and comedy numbers, both in terms of music and lyrics. Few musicals have ever meshed on all fronts in the way G&D does.

Set among the gangsters and low lifers of the New York underworld, it is basically two sort-of love stories, one involving fixer about town Nathan Detroit (Ray Fearon) and his cabaret performer perpetual fiancée Miss Adelaide (Lucy Vandi); the other telling of legendary gambler Sky Masterson (Ashley Zhangazha, giving the one stand-out performance of the evening) and his sudden infatuation with Salvation Army campaigner Sister Sarah Brown (Abiona Omonua). All get mixed up in trying to organise and play a crap (rolling dice) game amidst attempts by the law, and Miss Adelaide, to prevent it.

I have seen most major British productions of Guys And Dolls since the first tour of the first West End version in the 1950s but the one I treasure most was from the ’69 Theatre Company, at the Manchester University Theatre (now Contact) in 1972 - the company that, four years later morphed into the Royal Exchange. Zoe Wanamaker and Trevor Peacock from that production are still my ideal Adelaide and Nathan.

But it’s probably best, for the sake of this production here, if you haven’t seen the show at all before because despite everything, gauging from the first night audience reaction, Frank Loesser and Co are still triumphant.

I however don’t know where to start in pointing out the many shortcomings. So, I won’t, there really are too many in every department and I don’t want to undermine the enjoyment you will certainly have in seeing one of the Broadway greats.

Reviewer: Alan Hulme

Comments

Comment by David Upton

Like the illegal dice games that drive the story along in Guys and Dolls, you win some and you lose some here.

It's never less than entertaining throughout, even if it comes across as a play with music rather than the full-blown musical which has come to be expected.

The action shifts north of writer Damon Runyan's original heart of Broadway settings, into deepest Harlem, and loses much of that quirky Runyanese dialogue along the way.

His colourful characters come richly adorned in equally vivid costumes and the large cast's singing, acting and dancing talents are abundantly obvious.

It's just that Frank Loesser's evergreen music and lyrics seem to be treated almost as an afterthought. One or two key songs miss out on their own in-built character. Another, Bushel and a Peck, goes missing altogether, while the provocative Pet Me Poppa is revived for this production.

Nothing ever quite achieves the show-stopping style of Sit Down You're Rockin' The Boat, and that's one of the last big numbers in the show.

Designer Soutra Gilmour wisely keeps the stage area largely clear, with just hints of an Edward Hopper-style corner drug store, or Cotton Club stylings here and there, to give an authentic feel of time and place. Musical director Mark Aspinall conjures up a sound that suggests something far greater than that from an eight-piece band.

Ray Fearon, as Nathan Detroit, has looked much more at ease in earlier appearances at this venue, while Ashley Zhangazha also returns here in the pivotal role of Sky Masterson.

It's high-quality Christmas entertainment but musical theatre purists may not quite see it as the gift they promised themselves.

Comment by David Cunningham

This is a curiously cautious production of a classic. Damon Runyon never hesitated to exaggerate and his characters are pretty much close to caricatures but he created a wonderful mythical version of Broadway populated by street-smart guys and dolls. The Royal Exchange does not achieve the same mythic status for their version of Harlem. Apart from few flourishes – brighter, more garish clothes and Miss Adelaide as a  dignified Lady Day style torch singer- this is pretty much a standard staging of the musical.