Usually, when musicals are set on Broadway, we get a backstage exploration of hi-jinks, romance and comedy in the world of theatre and musicals. Guys and Dolls, subtitled ‘a musical fable of Broadway’, is less concerned with that side of the Great White Way. Instead, this is the Broadway of the real people, who gathered on the sidewalks and gambled, always keeping one eye out for the police.
Based on the stories of Damon Runyon, Frank Loesser’s musical comedy is more a chronicle of the fictional, romanticised version of 1950s New York. The production design similarly eschews a sense of realism for an impressionistic canvas upon which the performs paint a picture of Manhattan in song and dance; fragments of advertising hoardings form a rainbow backdrop, their outlines occasionally lighting up to suggest a New York skyline. I’ve always thought of the Phoenix’s stage being one of the West End’s smallest – it certainly felt like that when availing myself of Once’s onstage pre-show bar. The production must surely have been physically compressed from its limited run at the Savoy Theatre, which I didn’t catch – but it doesn’t feel as if it has. The choreography is vibrant and exciting, as I’d expect from Andrew Wright. His choreography credit is shared with Carlos Acosta, who I suspect had a hand in making the show’s brief Havana sequence fill suitably redolent with Caribbean charm and appropriately different in feel from the rest of the New York-set dances.
Of the show’s two romantic couplings, it is Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide – the gambler and burlesque dancer who after 14 years engaged remain unmarried – which please the most. Richard Kind has developed a long and fruitful career in TV, film and theatre playing bumbling, lovable lunkheads, and he brings the same endearing qualities to Nathan. It’s a great reading which gives a new dynamic to the character, and bounces well off Samantha Spiro’s Miss Adelaide. She is sparky, funny, and very much her fiancé’s equal, making it supremely believable that this couple have been a loving couple for so long. And of course, we get to see some of Adelaide’s performances at the Hot Box club, which are a hoot.
The other couple, Nathan’s fellow gambler Sky Masterson (Oliver Tompsett) and Sarah, the Salvation Army sergeant (Siubhan Harrison) he woos for a bet, don’t quite have the same spark, but they shine in other ways. Tompsett’s voice is well suited for this era, and his rendition of ‘Luck Be a Lady’ is second to none. Meanwhile, Harrison’s Havana-set transition from straight-laced missionary to drunkenly passionate woman is similarly good fun.
The rest of the ensemble is great fun, too. The double act of Benny Southstreet and Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Jason Pennycooke and Gavin Spokes) is a particular treat, as is Spokes’s leading of the entire ensemble with ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat’.
Since saying goodbye to Blood Brothers, the Phoenix Theatre has struggled to keep a musical running, with both Once (which should have stayed around for longer) and Bend It Like Beckham (which shouldn’t) failing to find the audiences to sustain them. Hopefully, Guys and Dolls will succeed in this regard, as its period charms are a welcome addition to the West End mix.
I paid for my own tickets to Guys and Dolls via the TodayTix app, which provides an easy way to order last minute tickets for the West End, Broadway and beyond. I can’t recommend it enough – it’s a great addition to the ways in which you can see theatre for less than the advertised prices.
Visit todaytix.com to download the free app – and if you enter the code HGLUU at checkout on your first purchase, you’ll save £10. I’ll get some credit towards my next ticket too, which will help me see more theatre and write more reviews.