‘When it fully works, it’s wonderful’: GUYS & DOLLS – Bridge Theatre ★★★★

Bridge Theatre, London – until 2 September 2023

I can’t imagine it ever not being a pleasure to encounter Damon Runyon’s gallery of petty criminals, gamblers, loafers, cops, sweethearts and showgirls, especially when filtered through Swerling and Burrows beautifully crafted script and above all the brassy brilliance of Frank Loesser’s score. Guys & Dolls is one of the all-time great Broadway musicals, a much-revived kaleidoscope of memorable characters, barnstorming numbers, rambunctious dialogue and sheer irrepressible joie de vivre tinged with just enough real feeling to make it fully satisfying. It’s also deceptively complex.

For any theatre enthusiast who has been living under a rock, Nicholas Hytner’s new production is unique because it is immersive, in the manner of this venue’s previous acclaimed versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Julius Caesar, with the auditorium floor turned, by designers Bunny Christie (set) and Paule Constable (lighting), into a facsimile of 1940s Times Square, with neon signage overhead and New York cops marshalling audience members between hydraulic platforms rising and set pieces being pushed on to create sundry locations, from Salvation Army mission to garish Hot Box nightclub to the sewers beneath the bustling sidewalks to a colourfully festive Havana. Whatever else, it’s a fantastic feat of stage management and looks set to become the biggest hit in the Bridge’s history so far… and it hasn’t even got Laura Linney or Maggie Smith in it.

It does however feature a London stage debut by Andrew Richardson as Sky Masterson, the suave professional gambler who unexpectedly falls for Salvation Army officer Sarah Brown, that has a similar impact as when Hugh Jackman first exploded onto the NT Olivier stage in the 1997 Oklahoma!, and would alone be worth the price of a ticket, even if there weren’t so many other things to enjoy here. He is sensational: funny, charming, effortlessly commanding the space, finding a warmth beneath the swagger, and suggesting, before meeting the luminous Ms Brown, a fast-paced life but with a vital piece missing.

He then movingly projects a sense of devastating, almost nihilistic, loss when he thinks Sarah is out of his life for good. He also has a gorgeous, authentic croon of a singing voice that recalls Harry Connick Jr or vintage Sinatra. I’ve seen some terrific performers in this role (Clarke Peters, Ewan McGregor, Adam Cooper, Jamie Parker) but, to quote one of Loesser’s songs for Sky and Sarah, ‘I’ve Never Been In Love Before’. Seriously though, don’t miss this new star.

Opposite him, Celinde Schoenmaker is an entrancing Sarah, capturing unerringly the character’s unusual mixture of religious fervour and romantic longing. It’s all too easy to see why Sky falls for her. Schoenmaker’s voice is utterly glorious, so rich and full in its lower register that it’s almost a surprise, albeit an exhilarating one, when she moves seamlessly into her soprano range, which is equally lovely (she was a long-serving Christine in the West End Phantom and Jenny Lind in the Menier Barnum). She also has some delightfully off-beat comedy instincts. It’s a marvellous performance. More than any other production I’ve seen, this Guys and Dolls puts this particular couple front and centre, and when this pairing is in focus the show soars.

Richardson and Schoenmaker are so good they manage to rise above one of this staging’s more glaring missteps. Where usually the pair’s Cuban sojourn culminates via Bacardi and a jealous punch-up (initiated by Sarah) in their first kiss, here Hytner and his choreographers Arlene Phillips and James Cousins have the couple head to a raunchy gay dive, where a bunch of moustachioed, muscled young men who look as though they’re about to launch into YMCA when not trying to get off with Sky (who could blame them?) disport sexily. It’s certainly different but it makes no sense. Why on earth would Masterson think it appropriate to bring Sister Brown here, especially if, as this production seems to be implying, he leads some sort of double life. Furthermore, however funny it is to watch the magnificent Ms Schoenmaker knocking seven bells out of the male chorus, it does risk casting Sarah in an unappealing homophobic light, thereby losing much of the audience’s sympathy. It’s a puzzling choice.

As Nathan Detroit, the fixer habitually on the lookout for a venue for “the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York”, Daniel Mays has exactly the right air of a man-child weighed down with both sweaty desperation and a genuine love for the leading lady of the Hot Box, “the famous fiancée” Miss Adelaide. Marisha Wallace is tremendously likeable in this gift of a role, even if she seems a little uncomplicated and vivacious to ever endure a fourteen year engagement or to suffer from a permanent psychosomatic cold as the result of her romantic dissatisfaction. It’s a sexy but surprisingly low-key reading of the part (except for the unexpectedly fierce nightclub numbers) and personally I missed the pathos that arises from the fictionalised home life Adelaide has created for herself and Nathan in a series of letters home to her mother. She should break your heart, as well as be screamingly funny, and this Adelaide isn’t quite there yet for me, although that may well come as the run progresses.

Guys and Dolls does of course feature the showstopper of all showstoppers in the legendary “Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat” and Cedric Neal’s roof-scraping Gospel belt and caffeinated joy makes a gargantuan meal of it. His warm, funny Nicely Nicely Johnson also has a palpable camaraderie with Mark Oxtoby’s fellow hustler Benny Southstreet, and the title song has seldom seemed so irresistible. Other golden performances in the supporting cast include Anthony O’Donnell as a Sally Army elder whose gentle, lilting “More I Cannot Wish You” to a lovelorn Sarah brings a genuine tear to the eye, and Katy Secombe doubling up as a redoubtable General and as the Hot Box’s sassy, androgynous MC.

Arlene Phillips’s supercharged choreography, created with James Cousins, nicely mixes traditional showbiz flamboyance with something tougher and more aggressive. Performed with energised grace and gusto by the tightly drilled ensemble, it sometimes feels compromised by the environmental staging (“Lucky Be A Lady” is a whirl of restless movement rather than a laser-sharp statement of intent, and it feels staged that way mainly to ensure that the entire house gets a look at Richardson’s Sky). It’s worth bearing in mind also that, if you book the promenade tickets, you may struggle to see everything and the dances are probably the biggest casualty of that.

This is going to be an unpopular opinion but, beyond the initial wow factor of walking into the Bridge’s reimagined auditorium and the nice use of standing patrons as table-seated guests at the top of act two (it’s worth getting back into the auditorium early, as there’s a unique treat, especially if you’re a fan of Cedric Neal, and tapdancing), I didn’t love the immersive element. For me, it renders Nicholas Hytner’s frequently splendid production slightly uneven, compromising the flow and focus of the piece. Shakespeare, or a musical like Here Lies Love, which was based on a concept album, are better suited to this sort of treatment, rather than a meticulously well constructed, fully integrated musical comedy crafted with Swiss watch-like precision.

Nevertheless, when it fully works, it’s wonderful: that’s basically almost any time Richardson and Schoenmaker are onstage, in the irresistible connection between Neal and Oxtoby, in the audience-slaying exhilaration released by Neal’s big number, in the detail in some of the supporting performances, so vivid you can almost sense their feet aching, and in the uproarious “Marry The Man Today” duet for the female leads, the conclusion of which is one of the few times when Wallace’s thrilling vocals are able to be given full rein. This is the most ambitious production that the Bridge has undertaken so far, and it’s scheduled to play throughout the summer, and no autumn show has been announced: despite my reservations I would, if I were a betting man, put my shirt on this perennial crowdpleaser extending indefinitely.

Alun Hood on Twitter
Alun Hood
Alun Hood has been at the theatre on a regular basis since the age of 8. He has seen upwards of 3000 stage productions, mainly in London but also in New York, Paris, Sydney, Stratford-Upon-Avon, Chichester, Manchester, Glasgow, Cardiff and, er, Croydon. He’ll go anywhere for a bit of live action and red plush. Alun studied Drama & English at University of London and has worked in theatre all his professional life. In addition to his personal blog, he reviews for WhatsOnStage and was a 2016/7 theatre panellist for the Laurence Olivier Awards. He’s on Twitter at alunjohnhood.

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