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Guys and Dolls at The Phoenix Theatre – Review

Guys and Dolls at the Phoenix TheatreWatching this version of Frank Loesser’s best and most famous musical, I could almost feel myself being hit over the head by its true concern. Apologies if it’s taken me decades to note what others may have clocked in an instant; maybe I was being distracted by the singing, dancing and wild intermingling of plotlines; maybe Loesser’s aims were being upstaged by the mere presence of Brando and Sinatra in the 1955 movie.

Whatever the reason, I’ve got there in the end. It’s all about salvation, stupid. Not just because the Save-a-Soul Mission in Gordon Greenberg’s production (the umpteenth West End transfer from Jonathan Church’s Chichester Festival Theatre) has such overtones of our own dear Sally Army; nor because everything comes good in the end for the rackety lives of these New York gamblers once they have gone through the public motions of faith and testimony. No, salvation for Loesser is a secular, present, worldly business. Perseverance gets you so far, but you ain’t got a prayer without the help of the two big L-words, Love and Luck. In this world suitors are chancers and chancers are suitors. Hence the heartfelt burden of the hit number, one of so many, “Luck Be A Lady Tonight.”

Greenberg’s treatment is dark with depression, the great economic catastrophe that gripped the nation in the years before the Second War, and hung on interminably in the collective memory and national motivation. In this respect the production is equally true to Loesser’s inspiration and provider of source material, the short story writer Damon Runyon. He, remember, was a country boy from Kansas and didn’t make his way to Manhattan until his late twenties. Although he was suitably impressed by the fabled lights of Broadway, it was the lower depths that engaged his more questing impulses.

For him, hence for Greenberg as well, these places are far from infernal, and the temptation to portray them as a bustling city’s moral underbelly are easily avoided. In fact the “Crapshooters Dance” scene in the sewers, when the menacing figure of Big Jule tries to recoup his gambling losses by using blank dice, becomes high with the surreal comedy of how to get on in an already rigged world. The Big Short it isn’t, but as a den of high stakes and low ingenuity, it’s almost up there. It’s also great fun, more so than the Mission to which Sky has pledged to bring a crowd of sinners, ripe for repentance.

Then there’s the central romantic drama – two of them actually – involving the roughly joined figures of Sky Masterson and Nathan Detroit, the one fixated by the almost inaccessible charms of Miss Sarah Brown, the other locked into a fourteen-year engagement with the ever hopeful Adelaide. The first of these two courtships comes across like a strangely welcome fugitive act from the more sober-sided world of musical theatre. It also cues one of the great ballads about impending love, “I’ll Know”, sung here with yearning restraint by Oliver Tompsett and Siubhan Harrison. As Miss Adelaide and Nathan Detroit, parts respectively illuminated in past London productions by such stars as Julia McKenzie and Henry Goodman, Samantha Spiro and Richard Kind spin a blissful line in the habit-forming pleasures and pains of marriage deferred.

The two choreographers are Carlos Acosta and Andrew Wright. Acosta, the great Cuban ballet dancer who joined the Royal Ballet in London in 1998. No, he doesn’t appear here, except through his role as choreographer, which is palpable through levels of classical virtuosity and discipline rarely seen on the London musical stage. Not surprisingly his influence is most striking during the show’s Cuban sequence, set of course long before the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in 1959. I happen to have interviewed the young Acosta not long after his arrival at the Royal Ballet, and remember him saying how a dance education for a boy from a humble background such as his would have been unthinkable in the Cuba of Castro’s predecessor, General Batista. In the often grim dance of US foreign policy there’s a nice symmetry in the choreographing of this musical’s Havana scene in the year when President Obama goes to visit the Cuba of Castro’s younger brother and successor.

Guys and Dolls builds to its climax like a massive wave. This arrives, towers, totters and floods the world, and is called “Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat.” As show-stoppers go, it is one of the greats, and very nearly brings the evening to a halt. When it’s subsided, the business is all but done and there is little left to do except repeat the chorus. And then again after that. A closing number with built-in encores. What’s it doing here, apart from being massive and unfollowable? In Greenberg’s reading the answer is both as clear and as rich as Loesser surely intended. One of the gamblers, Nicely-Nicely Johnson fabricates a dream about how he is spared from hell so that he can help unite the members of the prayer meeting. He is, as they say in the States, faking it to make it. Yet the song itself, and the fears of being dragged under to a place far less fun than the New York sewers, is full of the most tangible terror. For a moment, a long moment in a long song, salvation itself is in peril. All hands on deck. The moment passes. But, Sit Down? Whoever thought you would prosper through compliance? Has not the whole evening been a great hymn to turbulent waters and the joys of transgression? Or have we been dreaming?

5 Star Rating

Review by Alan Franks

Nominated for 6 Olivier Awards – including Best Musical Revival
Don’t miss this sizzling New York tale of gamblers, gangsters and nightclub singers as it ‘LIGHTS UP THE WEST END’ (The Daily Telegraph) with some of Broadway’s greatest show-stopping tunes including Luck be a Lady, Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat and My Time of Day.

A cast and orchestra of over 40 is led by multiple Olivier Award-winning actress Samantha Spiro as the long-suffering Miss Adelaide, Richard Kind (Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out) as Nathan Detroit with Oliver Tompsett as Sky Masterson and Siubhan Harrison as the pious Salvation Army sergeant, Sarah Brown.

Nigel Lindsay will be joining the cast for a limited time at the Phoenix Theatre to play the part of Nathan Detroit. He will join from Thursday 26 May until Sunday 26 June 2016, taking over from Richard Kind who will play his final performance on Sunday 22 May 2016.

Don’t leave it to lady luck! Book now for ‘A BRILLIANT NEW PRODUCTION OF WHAT IS PROBABLY THE GREATEST MUSICAL OF ALL TIME’ (LBC)

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Guys and Dolls
Phoenix Theatre
Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0JP

Running Time: 2 hours 50 minutes
Show Opened: 25th Jan 2016
Booking Until: 30th Oct 2016

Tuesday 2.30 pm
Wednesday 7.30 pm
Thursday 2.30 pm 7.30 pm
Friday 7.30 pm
Saturday 2.30 pm 7.30 pm
Sunday 2.30 pm

Author

  • Alan Franks

    Alan Franks is one of the senior reviewers for LondonTheatre1.com, contributing regularly with reviews for London and regional shows, as well as reporting on press launches. Alan Franks was a Times feature writer for more than thirty years, specialising in the arts and interviewing many leading actors, writers and directors, including Arthur Miller, Peter Hall, Woody Allen, Judi Dench and Stephen Sondheim. He is the author of several plays, including The Mother Tongue starring Prunella Scales, and his latest novel, The Notes of Dr. Newgate, is published by Muswell Press. http://www.alanfranks.com

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