Guys and Dolls, Phoenix Theatre, London ★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

Damon Runyon’s stories of 1950s New York, which form the basis of Frank Loesser’s musical Guys and Dolls, show a side of Broadway vastly at odds with the backstage antics and tap dancing mayhem of the usual period comedy set on the Great White Way.

Instead, we spend two and a half hours with the gamblers, lowlifes and their associates, which is far more interesting. The only nod to the theatrical world is the Hot Box club, where Nathan Detroit’s perpetual fiancée Miss Adelaide performs.

And it is the role of Miss Adelaide which has prompted renewed interest in this production, with the casting of Australian comedic actor Rebel Wilson in the role. Wilson shot to prominence in the Pitch Perfect movies, which illustrated both her singing ability and her hilariously coarse brand of humour. Elements of both are present in her performance here.

Miss Adelaide’s dialogue contains plenty of opportunity for innuendo, which the role’s previous incumbent, Samantha Spiro, used to great effect to give a portrayal of a sweet and affectionate woman who didn’t always realise what she was saying.

Wilson has a starkly different reading of the character, removing the double from every entendre and bringing a raucous, anarchic edge to Miss Adelaide’s demeanour. And yet such moments are occasional, with a sweet and charming side of the character also coming through in waves that make Wilson’s portrayal feel uneven.

Matters are not helped by an accent which roams around the Eastern seaboard, as well as from octave to octave, seemingly on a whim. Initially it seems that the wildly varying voice, from guttural bass to nasal shrill, is an interpretation of Miss Adelaide’s cold (as documented in the song ‘Adelaide’s Lament’). If so, it’s not a particularly successful one.

What is most frustrating about the unevenness of Wilson’s performance is that, particularly in Act II, she proves herself completely capable of evincing genuine emotion in Adelaide’s quieter, more contemplative moments.

By the musical’s end, one does grow to believe that she and Nathan (Simon Lipkin) are long-term lovers with genuine feeling for each other. But for much of the evening, it feels like Wilson is in a different production from the rest of the cast.

Lipkin, who like Wilson has recently joined the cast, brings an amiable dynamism to Nathan Detroit, with a perpetual twinkle in the eye that suggests both actor and character are having the time of their life.

Oliver Tompsett’s Sky Masterson and Siubhan Harrison’s Sarah Brown have what passes in Guys and Dolls for more of a conventional romantic relationship, including some great comedic moments in the show’s Havana-set scenes and a rollicking performance by Tompsett of ‘Luck Be a Lady’ in Act II.

The undoubted star of the whole show, though, is Andrew Wright’s exuberant choreography, performed by an ensemble which is clearly having a ball with his 1950s-inspired moves.

That the Cuban dance sequence, choreographed by Carlos Acosta, becomes the standout dance sequence in the whole production is remarkable given the high standard elsewhere.

Further joy is brought with the show’s climactic number, ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat’, as Gavin Spokes’ Nicely-Nicely Johnson proceeds to bring the house down, backed up by the entire company. The entire sequence is probably the most feel-good moment of any show in the West End right now, and its place so close to the end of the show helps to ensure that memories of a stodgy Act I, and of an unusual and ineffective interpretation of Miss Adelaide, do not overshadow all the good things about this joyous show.