Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows
Based on the writing of Damon Runyon
Company: Guildford School of Acting
Directed by Samuel Wood
Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
Date: 23rd February 2017
It was lovely to attend a performance of Guys And Dolls again, and this performance by the talented students of the Guildford School of Acting was great fun and brilliantly performed. We sat front and centre (row C – to make room for the band) and enjoyed ourselves enormously, and we were not alone.
The set was pretty impressive. Three pairs of brick wall side flats framed a large image of New York buildings on the back screen. A selection of period advertising boards hung in front of this with an interesting mix of brands – Coca Cola, Pontiac, Greyhound, Revlon etc. We spent a few minutes reading them all before the musical began. I had spotted an acknowledgement in the program thanking Chichester Festival Theatre for their support, so we were looking out for any familiar items from their 2014 production. None of the adverts fitted the bill, but the night was young.
As the band started up, a young couple appeared on stage checking a map: these were tourists who cropped up a few times during the evening. More characters came on, and there was so much happening I couldn’t take it all in, although the pickpocket was an easy spot, for us and the policeman. I soon realised that with so many dancers on a relatively small stage they had to stick to dancing in rows for the most part, but they were still effective and could show off their talent and hard work.
The opening number was very good, with the words being especially clear. When the Salvation Army band arrived, I thought one of the young women in the group was rather flirty, but Sarah Brown soon killed the mood for everyone (except the drunk guy, possibly). There was plenty of mood to kill too, as one young couple were very closely entwined for a remarkably long time during this scene, before running off to enjoy themselves elsewhere.
The ‘banter’ between Nicely-Nicely, Benny and Lt. Brannigan was well done, with Jed Berry using his very mobile face to give Nicely-Nicely a range of fast-moving comic expressions which earned plenty of laughter. Nathan Detroit was not as I’d expected, being rather tall and skinny, but I warmed to him as the story progressed, especially in his relationship with Miss Adelaide.
“The Oldest Established” was another good number and led into the debate on how to accommodate the vast army of gamblers eager to lose their money at craps. Finally Nathan came to the conclusion that only a can’t-lose bet with Sky Masterson would get them the money they needed. While Nicely-Nicely and Benny headed off to get the inside information to make the bet safe, Nathan spent some time with his dearly beloved, longstanding fiancée, Miss Adelaide.
Even before her numbers at the Hot Box, we could see that Miss Adelaide (Mari McGinlay) was a class act. Her Brooklyn accent was razor sharp and her timing excellent, getting a good laugh on several lines. Benny and Nicely-Nicely dragged her off just in time for Nathan to attempt his betting coup with Sky, and while the performance had been going well up to this point, it now stepped up a gear with Evan Sutton’s excellent portrayal of Sky Masterson. His singing voice was easily up to the task, and he delivered all his lines, both sung and spoken, with a very strong characterisation.
Having finally squirted cider in Sky’s ear (metaphorically), the action moved to the Save A Soul Mission, and at last I spotted a CFT contribution – the door and windows of the mission house were very familiar. The interaction between Sky and Sarah was another excellent aspect of this production, and although Sarah’s voice was rather shrill in “I’ll Know”, their relationship was off to its usual bad start.
To the Hot Box next, and this time we got the compere, snide and sleazy in his sparkly lounge lizard jacket, using a lowered microphone to announce the next number. The girls came on first, each holding on to a long piece of rope. As their dance routine became a bit more complicated, they got a little tangled up (as choreographed) but sorted themselves out before Miss Adelaide’s entrance. She was everything we thought she would be, and stood up well to comparisons with others we have seen (Imelda Staunton, Sophie Thompson). Her reluctant admission to Nathan that they had been married for twelve years and had five children with another on the way – according to Adelaide’s letters to her mother – was wonderfully funny, even though we knew what was coming. The news that Nathan was still running a crap game was too much for her though, and Nathan left her alone to sing “Adelaide’s Lament” – another wonderful rendition.
More sections of buildings were brought on for the street scene, where Nicely-Nicely and Benny treated us to the title song “Guys and Dolls”, and very good it was too. Outside the mission, General Cartwright arrived to announce the closure of this branch, and Sarah finally capitulated, accepting Sky’s marker for twelve genuine sinners in return for going to dinner with him. And we were off to Cuba!
No palm trees this time, but the lively dancing more than made up for it. Sarah’s drunkenness was good, and the fight-dance was very well done. Her voice was better for “If I were A Bell”, possibly because she wasn’t pushing to get the volume. Back in New York, outside the mission house, I found myself sniffling a lot during “I’ve Never Been In Love Before”, and after the gamblers scrambled to get away from the cops, they took the interval.
The second half started in the Hot Box, and during “Take Back Your Pearls” there was a lot more chat between the girls and the customers than I remember from previous productions. It gave the number an authentic feel though, and was another highlight of a very good performance. When Nathan arrived after the show, the compere went off to fetch him a drink, returning just when Adelaide was confronting Sky – seeing this, the compere did a swift U-turn and skedaddled back off stage. It got a huge laugh, but given the dynamic of the scene, it was the sort of business which would be out of place in a professional production: here it gave the compere another chance to show his talent, so I accepted it as a bit of fun.
The sewers were dark and relatively uncluttered – with so many dancers they needed all the room they could get. The dancing was fine, and there were a number of solo spots which all went well. Big Jule (and he really was BIG Jule) insisted they continued playing; this time they would use Big Jule’s own dice, the ones with the spots removed, and it was all looking pretty bad for Nathan’s wedding fund when Sky arrived. Having put Big Jule out of action, he asked the others to go to the mission prayer meeting, but had no takers. Once he got the idea of making it into a bet, however, and with a thousand dollars on offer to each sinner, it was no hardship to get the markers for their souls.
“Luck Be A Lady” is one of my favourite songs anyway, and this was a very good rendition of it. I was a little taken aback when one of the women came on and started dancing to one side, but then I realised she represented Lady Luck herself, and I found it a useful addition to the choreography. A chorus of Lady Luckettes joined in as well, and the only problem I had was stopping myself singing along!
Back up on the street, the gamblers came up out of the sewers via a manhole back left, and straggled off stage to the mission. Adelaide’s encounter with Nathan was lovely (sniff, sniff) and her outrage when he told her, truthfully, that he had to go to a prayer meeting was just wonderful.
In the mission, the rabble was brought to order by Sky, and seated themselves dutifully on the left of the stage, with the General and her troops on the right. The contributions by Benny and Big Jule were a good warm-up, but the best was yet to come. When Nathan pounced on Nicely-Nicely, it was a shock to that gentleman, but he rose to the occasion brilliantly. Unlike some performances which make Nicely-Nicely’s song quite straightforward, this Nicely was having to make it up as he went along, and we could see the agony on his face as he struggled to come up with the next bit of his story. That added to the fun, of course, along with the excellent choreography and music, which had more than the cast tapping their feet. A bottle of booze was placed in his hand at the appropriate moment, and just as swiftly confiscated by the General. The chairs were rearranged into two rows for the boat, and then moved again to form the waves before being replaced so that at the end of the song the gamblers were back in their original positions. We applauded mightily but there was no encore, only Nicely-Nicely checking his pulse to see if he was still alive.
Back outside, Adelaide and Sarah both arrived on the same bit of street. This was the one bit I could have done without: they each sang a bit of their own song – “Adelaide’s Lament” and “I’ll Know When My Love Comes Along” – and the attempt to blend them grated with me as the tunes jarred with each other. It’s not as if we needed it to remind us who they were. The mish-mash didn’t last for long, fortunately, and then we were into another marvellous song, “Marry The Man Today”, which they did brilliantly.
Then it was just the finale, and again I recognised Nathan’s newsstand which had also graced the Festival theatre stage. The story was rounded off quickly, and the cast gave us a final shot of the title song before accepting our rapturous applause, well earned.
© 2017 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me