Guys and Dolls has been a continuous success story since its first outing in 1950, and in reviewing such an irresistible and indestructible classic it is still worth asking where its secrets lie. The most important reason perhaps resides in the almost perfect blend of book, lyrics and music achieved by Burrows and Loesser which creates the two essentials of great musical theatre – a fully imagined dramatic world – ‘Runyonland’ – which captures all the debonair elegance, energy, and suave danger of Broadway gambling in post-war New York, and snappy but romantic dialogue that blends effortlessly into music, thus answering the question of why words and music need to be together.
Add to that four fully developed and contrasting characters as the leads, great chorus numbers, showpiece moments for the band, a film noir setting for design and costumes, sizzling choreography in diverse styles, and you have a complete musical, in the same way that The Marriage of Figaro is the complete opera, with something for everyone both onstage and in the audience.
But a work this fine and familiar is difficult to bring off afresh without risking blandness on the one hand or jejune novelty on the other. Gordon Greenberg’s Chichester production comes into the Savoy theatre with the hardest of acts (Gypsy) to follow, and succeeds with judicious flair. Set under an impressively gaudy kaleidoscopic arch studded with advertising posters this show is technically accomplished, with a burnished energy and panache that is sharper and slicker in all sorts of small ways than in its first Chichester outing. Gareth Valentine in the pit drives his brassy orchestra hard, but it bears dividends in the set pieces and meshes superbly with the choreography of Carlos Acosta and Andrew Wright, especially in the slinky bravura of the ‘Crapshooters’ Dance’ and the feisty Latin shapes of the Havana sequence.
Newstand vendor and small-scale crapshooter Nathan Detroit (David Haig) bets high-stakes gambler Sky Masterson (Jamie Parker) $1000 that he cannot persuade prim Miss Sarah Brown (Siubhan Harrison) to leave her Save a Soul Mission and go with him to Havana. He needs the money to finance a crap game, but that in turn may lose him long-term fiancée Miss Adelaide (Sophie Thompson).
This initial gambit releases any number of plot twists but through the mayhem the couples need to grow together perceptibly – as Sky says, it is ‘all in the chemistry’, and on that count this production is a mixed bag. It’s truly there between Haig and Thompson, whose rapport gives real meaning even, for example, to a relatively minor song such ‘Sue Me’, but it is not there between Parker and Harrison in the way it was between Parker and Clare Foster in Chichester. There is nothing really wrong with either performance, even if Harrison’s voice is inflexible and a bit harsh in timbre; but through the great, gathering sequence of romantic songs that mark the climax to Act One the relationship never warms up or is truly believable. Parker is also now acting and singing in a darker style, more reminiscent of later Sinatra; and while that is a plausible and interesting view, I prefer his unselfconscious earlier rendition to this more mannered re-incarnation.
That said, there are some spectacular individual and collective moments in what is a wholly delightful evening. Thompson hit all the right notes of brassy vulgarity and poignant despair in the spectrum of adenoidal suffering that is Miss Adelaide. She deservedly received the loudest ovation of the evening. But above all, it is a company show, and ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat’, still stopped the show just as it should.