Photograph by Manuel Harlan
A romantic comedy set in the context of an illegal gambling ring in New York, the Royal Exchange was always backing a winner with Guys and Dolls: quirky characters, a sharp script and a raft of memorable songs make it one of the great classics of musical theatre. But this collaboration with the Talawa Theatre Company is also pushing boundaries – detaching the production from its traditional associations with white New York culture, transporting it to Harlem, and populating it with an all-black cast. The result is a Guys and Dolls which is vibrant and jazzy with a gritty feel that works most (though perhaps not all) of the time.
The storyline (derived from Damon Runyon’s short stories) turns on Nathan Detroit’s quest to find a location for an illegal crap (dice) game, in the course of which he bets inveterate gambler Sky Masterson that he will not be able to persuade a Salvation Army Sergeant to go to Havana with him.
A simple stage design sets the scene – a New York street-lamp and corner drug store – but mainly serves as a blank canvas for the superb, atmospheric lighting design and the explosion of colour provided by the characters – especially the men, in their three-piece suits of lime green, royal blue, orange, turquoise, deep burgundy etc. It is, overall, a visually beautiful production – where colour and movement combine perfectly to give us a true spectacle.
It is also – predictably – a musical delight. It is hard to go wrong with these classic songs and they lend themselves well to a bluesy, gospel, jazzy interpretation. From the gentle ‘I’ll Know’ (beautifully rendered by Abiona Omonua as Sarah Brown) to the show-stopping ‘Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat’, the musical performances are terrific. The direction, however, is a bit puzzling in places. In particular, ‘Adelaide’s Lament’ (‘A person can develop a cold’) is played very straight, and performed from a largely static position – and duly lacks the comedic punch that it normally delivers. Similarly, Adelaide and Sarah’s duet (‘Marry the Man Today’) is performed with the two actors circling around each other rather than collaborating in this moment of unexpected female solidarity – and, again, it feels subdued rather than comic and celebratory. It’s as if director Michael Buffong wants to inject a more gritty, realistic flavour to the show and, generally, to ‘play it down’. In doing so, however, he fails to do justice to the subtlety, sharpness and intrinsically comedic content of the lyrics he’s working with – at least for these two songs.
The production does, however, do justice to the characters – especially the men. Ray Fearon is outstanding and utterly convincing as the endearing serial liar and trickster, Nathan Detroit – a man who spends his life evading both the police and the marital aspirations of his long-term fiance. He sashays across the stage with great confidence and authority but is always only one crap game away from professional and personal disaster – and he knows it. Ashley Zhangazha brings a real tenderness to his portrayal of Sky Masterson, and I am genuinely moved by the portrayal of the Salvation Army’s Arvide Abernathy (played by Trevor A Toussant) whose gentle wisdom and avuncular manner is a perfect foil for the intense judgementalism and stiffness of Omonua’s Sarah Brown.
Perhaps I should confess at this point that Guys and Dolls is one of my favourite musicals (to be honest, there aren’t many of these – musicals are not ‘my genre’). But this cuts both ways – I am both positively disposed towards the production and, perhaps, more likely to be disappointed and find fault if it doesn’t fulfil my high expectations. In the event, there is no cause for concern; I love this production and the freshness injected by the cultural shift. I am going again at the end of December for a family night out – and I can’t wait.