Joan Davies says you don’t need luck to gamble on this for your Christmas show
With Luck Be a Lady and Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat as sure-fire crowd pleasers, Loesser and Burrow’s Guys and Dolls is usually a guarantee of a good night at the theatre, at the very least a good second act. The Royal Exchange’s co-production with Talawa Theatre Company rolls to hit the highest spots, and largely does so, with strong character definition and innovative choreography.
Director Michael Buffong has moved the setting just up the road to Harlem: recruiting an all-black cast; adding swing, bebop and gospel infusions to the music; and bringing in choreographer Kendrick Sandy of Blue Boy Entertainment, whose African-infused Blak Whyte Gray was a hip hop hit when its tour hit HOME last year. With a few jarring exceptions, the relocation works superbly, making the musical feel younger than its 67 years.
The story looks at two worlds: the world of gamblers and chancers, following ‘good, old reliable’ Nathan Detroit (Ray Fearon), and that of a group of missionaries who seek to save sinners’ souls. Sky Masterson (Ashley Zhangzhou), who gets his name from how high he bets, appears to be the most successful gambler and the least likely to convert.
Nathan, who has been reliably engaged for fourteen years to Miss Adelaide (Lucy Vandi) needs $1000 to fund a crap game location and engages with Sky in a bet both believe they can’t lose. Cue involvement of the mission’s Sister Sarah Brown (Abiona Omonua), and the tables are turned.
Ray Fearon’s previous Royal Exchange pairing with Michael Buffong in Raisin in the Sun was an outstanding success. So is this pairing. Fearon’s Nathan Detroit is unusually believable, as well as entertaining. Fearon brings to the role an essential mix that’s not always seen on the Guys and Dolls stage: a power to lead men, a power to impress women, powers he’s held for years and years, combined with a vulnerability. Nathan Detroit, in this production, is both author of his own success and failure, yet powerless to really adjust his position in life.
The sense of being caught by circumstance, making the best of things, holding on to reputation and respecting honour amongst thieves - while occasionally glimpsing opportunities for change which would take some courage to grab hold of - infuses this production. There’s a solid core here; it’s not just an entertaining musical, there is a real drama at the heart of the show.
The first act produces a few incongruities. The jazz-swing style doesn’t always suit, particularly in I’ve Never Been in Love Before, where the fun and sassy orchestral style causes difficulties for the vocals. Thankfully the mission’s Follow the Fold remains musically untouched. The Havana scene is too rushed; Sarah Brown needs longer to succumb to love and rhythm, even when fuelled by alcohol. Today the scene’s in danger of looking like just another costume change on Strictly’s Blackpool night, despite the superb cast.
I remind myself that the show’s always been unbalanced, and settle down for the second act. This musical can and does fill the biggest stages. In the Royal Exchange’s more intimate space, the style changes come into their own and we’re treated to dancing that somehow manages to be both ‘church-appropriate’ and sultry. Ako Mitchell leads Sit Down... as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, while Joe Speare gets a Christmas change of role (he makes a great panto genie in Aladdin) to play Big Jule, a powerful and threatening gambler, with superb comic timing.
The women are cool too. Lucy Vandi transforms nightclub performer Miss Adelaide to a jazz singer of real quality, and her duet with Abiona Omonua on Marry the Man Today is a delight.
Set design is simple and effective. Costumes are classy, colourful and cool. Sky’s suit is blue, close to sky blue, Nathan’s a not-quite-regal purple and Nicely-Nicely’s parrot green. The sound is superb.
Guys and Dolls is often placed as one of the top two musicals. It would certainly be my top choice for a Manchester Christmas treat for the grown-ups this year. I’ve followed my own advice and booked my Christmas visitors in.
Guys and Dolls is at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 3 February 2018