GUYS & DOLLS - Bridge Theatre, London
On a recent quick visit to London, I had just two evenings for theater. Serendipitously, I saw two outstanding productions that feature the best of American musical theater: “Guys & Dolls”, one of the best American musicals of all time, and “Old Friends” a new revue of the work of Stephen Sondheim’, indisputably one of the best American composer/lyricists ever. This review was written for Blickpunkt Musical, the German magazine on international musical theatre for which I am US reviewer. DAN
British director Nicholas Hytner has done it again - reviving one of the best American musicals and making us see it as if it were brand new. Just as he did with “Carousel” years ago (the opening number that transforms the grim factory into a magnificent merry-go-round still plays like a movie in my head), Hytner has taken “Guys and Dolls” and energized it as an exhilarating romp through world of lovable lowlife in Manhattan of the 1940s.
Hytner and his production team have transformed the Bridge into a rollicking, rough and tumble world of Times Square. Orchestra seats have been removed, creating an arena floor with seats tiered on all four sides. The performances occur on hydraulic platforms that rise from the floor in various configurations. Audience members who want to stand populate the action, becoming part of the Times Square street scene, directed about by the production staff costumed as New York City policemen of the old-fashioned, friendliest sort.
The scenery by Bunny Christie and lighting by Paul Constable (lots of perimeter and drop-down Technicolor neon bar and restaurant signs) create a story-book Times Square. Sound design by Paul Arditti recreates not only taxi horns and the hustle-and-bustle of street crowds but also the clattering of the old subway cars that were retired decades ago. The staging is a marvel to behold, in its ingenious creativity and technical execution.
Amazingly, the spectacle doesn’t overwhelm the story, rather, it heightens Frank Leosser’s 1950 musical, with a book by Abe Burrows adapted from short stories by Damon Runyon. Nathan Detroit, who operates illegal crap games, has averted marriage for 14 years to his fiance nightclub singer Miss Adelaide (Marisha Wallace). Looking for souls to save, Sister Sarah (Celinde Schoenmaker) of the Bible-thumping mission house, unexpectedly falls in love with suave, big time gambler Sky Masterson (Andrew Richardson).
Casting of the four leads is spot on, but what really re-energizes “Guys & Dolls” is a sensational performance by Ms Wallace as Miss Adelaide. Traditional Adelaides have been squeaky-voiced, Cupie-doll club performers, but not here. Wallace’s Miss Adelaide is a big, bosomy, brassy-voiced force of nature who is unapologetically a stripper. If the rest of the cast weren’t so strong, Wallace would steal the show; she leads the show- stopper “Take Back Your Mink”. This isn’t cutesy burlesque, this is naughty striptease. (No spoiler but sometimes a carrot IS a cigar.) Later, Wallce takes the roof off The Bridge with Adelaide’s solo, “Lament.”
In another plot innovation, when Masterston convinces Sarah to make a trip with him to Cuba the drinking and dancing in the number “Havana” ends up in a gay bar, with Materston pairing off for a bit with a muscled patron. Sarah joins in, bedlam ensues and she and Masterson escape the melee. The choreography by Arlene Phillips and James Cousins is at its most muscular, however, in the “Gambler’s Ballet”; it’s stunning how the entire men’s chorus maneuvers athletically on such a relatively small and elevated platform space.
The biggest crowd pleaser, of course, is the ensemble number “Sit Down, You’re Rockin The Boat '' exuberantly lead by Simon Anthony, understudy in the performance I saw for Nicely Nicely, to three encores. The 14 piece orchestra, perched in the upper tier of seating is marvelous as are the musical arrangements, (But then Loesser’s score is among the best ever written.) If one sees this “Guys & Dolls” on a London trip - and one should - stay after the curtain calls. The celebration continues with a dance-off among the audience and select members of the cast. This “Guys & Dolls” is an absolute joy beginning to end.