Widely regarded as one of the finest Broadway musicals of all time, this co-production between the Royal Exchange and Talawa Theatre Company of the great Guys and Dolls, first performed in 1950 and revived many times since, is notable for being the first in the UK to feature an all-black cast.
There was a 1976 Broadway revival on similar lines, but this goes further by relocating the action entirely to Harlem in 1939 and drawing from the musical influences of the time.
“I’d loved the show for a long time,” says director Michael Buffong whose fairly impeccable record with the Exchange includes A Raisin in The Sun, King Lear and Private Lives. “But to be honest, I’d always imagined it the way we’re doing it now, with a jazz swing and the Harlem Renaissance setting. We get to use all the musical styles that were around at the time, such as jazz, be-bop, gospel, swing. Musically it’s a much bigger palette.”
Buffong came up with the idea, he remembers, after going back to Damon Runyon’s original stories of sharp-talking hustlers, gamblers, gangsters, hapless dreamers and other folk from the shady side of New York’s mean streets.
“As I was reading, I was thinking, ‘what was happening in Harlem at this time?’ The location is still Broadway but now we’re a few blocks up the Great White Way. There was a lot going on in black America then – painting, dance, theatre. What surprised me was how self-sufficient the community was, and how much money was around. It’s all only a stone’s throw from the original setting. I don’t know why it hasn’t been done before. I’m just glad I’m the one who thought of it.”
As a concept, this is intriguing, even if it does lead to the sort of lack of geographical precision that may well dismay a few crotchety old critics. But who really cares too much about their pomposity in the face of such an irresistible force of sheer entertainment?
Adapted by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows from a couple of Runyon’s tales, The Idyll of Sarah Brown and Blood Pressure, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, Guys and Dolls tells the tale of lifelong gambler Nathan Detroit (Ray Fearon) attempting to organise an illegal crap game despite promising his long-suffering fiancée, Miss Adelaide (Lucy Vandi), that he has gone straight.
In the middle of a police crackdown and under considerable pressure from such – literally and metaphorically- colourful characters as Harry The Horse (Kurt Kansley), Big Jule (Joe Speare) and Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Ako Mitchell), the incorrigible Nathan finds the only way to raise the funds for the game is to contrive an “unwinnable” bet with his equally roguish pal Sky Masterson (Ashley Zhangazha), this being that the high-roller can’t manage to take the zealous Salvation Army missionary Sarah Brown (Abiona Omonua) for dinner in Havana. Yes, I know. But you’re happy to go with it, believe me.
Full of hilarious, winningly delivered wisecracks and with a score from Frank Loesser that’s packed with such crowd-pleasingly unforgettable tunes as Luck Be a Lady and Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat, this is a thoroughly rousing and joyful show.
Personally, I found the sound a little muddy in places (although this was a first night) and Buffong has taken some unexpected, and not necessarily successful, choices such as replacing Miss Adelaide’s famous number A Bushel and A Peck with Pet Me, Poppa, a song written only for the 1955 film version but presumably included here because it better fits the overall musical palette.
This, however, is merely nit-picking about a truly terrific show that’s bursting with such infectious dynamism and style that I defy anyone not to emerge with a great beaming smile on their face and joy in their hearts.
By Kevin Bourke, Theatre Editor
Guys and Dolls is on at the Royal Exchange Theatre until February 3, 2018. For information, or to book tickets, visit the website.