Guys And Dolls – Bridge Theatre – review

Daniel Mays & Marisha Wallace lead an extraordinary theatrical experience


The cast of Guys And Dolls at the Bridge Theatre London dance on stage
Guys And Dolls at the Bridge Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

From the moment you walk into the auditorium at the Bridge Theatre and see the in-the-round arrangement, with half the audience milling about on the stage floor, neon lights hanging above them, you know this production of Guys And Dolls is going to be something special.

If you’re not familiar with Guys And Dolls, you might wonder what makes it for many people including myself the greatest musical. Of course, there are other candidates but it’s hard to find another that offers quite such riches. Thanks to Abe Burrows, and the source material by Damon Runyon, it has a clever, fast moving, romantic plot with witty, captivating dialogue. This is integrated with a packed score of classic songs by Frank Loesser from solos to duets to trios to ensembles, that set the mood, carry the story forward, and bring out all the complexities of the characters.

Until now, Richard Eyre‘s legendary National Theatre production of 1982 (for those of us that saw it) is probably the one every other production is judged by, but the Bridge Theatre‘s Nicholas Hytner has produced a rival.

The overture begins, the neon signs fly upwards, and risers appear out of the floor. Designer Bunny Christie has choreographed the rise and fall of numerous platforms across the whole of the stage area as beautifully as Arlene Phillips has the dancing. Working in the round is never easy for the lighting designer, but the stage, or stages are cleverly lit by Paule Constable so all is illuminated without the light getting in your eyes.

It took some time for my jaw to stop dropping, as the incredible front-of-house staff, many in police outfits, gently corralled the crowd out of the way of the many different interconnecting platforms going seamlessly up and down.

And that’s just the beginning of the way director Nicholas Hytner tackles the challenge of presenting a musical that, for all its qualities, is still riven with the sexism of the 1950s. By making a significant chunk of the audience part of the show, they (and by proxy those of us who were sitting)  join the strange parallel universe of Runyonland, a world with stylised language, comic criminals, and binary guys and dolls. In this fantasy world, the men can all be gamblers and wastrels following Nathan Detroit’s floating crap game, and the women can all be Christian missionaries or strippers- the classic virgin or whore, until the happy ending brings us back to a more normal world, as if we have woken from a dream.

Then there’s the way Mr Hytner has cast the show. There are two love stories that give Guys And Dolls its momentum. For a bet, gambler Sky Masterston needs to seduce Sarah Brown, the buttoned-up leader of a Salvation Army-like mission. And Nathan Detroit needs to keep stringing along his hapless fiancée of 14 years, Miss Adelaide. In other words, the women are presented in the musical as the weaker sex. So, as if to make up for this, the production gives them the best and strongest voices in the show.

That’s no offence to Daniel Mays in the role of Nathan Detroit who has a decent singing voice. He sings his big duet Sue Me with great poignancy, but it is not challenging as a song, given that it was originally written for Sam Levine who was tone deaf. Andrew Richardson as Sky Masterson also sounds perfectly good but Celinde Schoenmaker as Sarah has a big lunged, high note hitting voice. And Marisha Wallace, who plays Miss Adelaide has a voice that could blow the roof off, and a personality to match. So while Miss Adelaide is a slave to her love for Nathan, in every other respect she comes across as a liberated, strong woman.

When Sarah and Adelaide sing the duet Marry The Man Today, they match one another note for note and provide one of the highlights of the show.

The rest of the cast are racially diverse, which is another way of pulling the musical into the present day.

The tone of the musical is set from the first number when out of the bustling crowd of actors and audience emerge a trio of petty criminals who sing Tinhorn Fugue, a song about betting on horses in which the actors sing different lyrics simultaneously to the same tune. The complexity of this circular canon delights and exhilarates, and sets us up for a musical which will continue to excite those emotions.

And what emotions they are. We’re quickly plunged into the first meeting between Sky and Sarah in which they sing the beautiful romantic song I’ll Know in which each describes their ideal lover.

The transformational power of love is the driving force of this musical, or, as the song puts it: ‘When you see a guy reach for stars in the sky,
you can bet that he’s doing it for some doll.’ In this production, the sexual side of love is accentuated. Miss Adelaide’s cabaret act is raunchier than I’ve ever seen it, especially when the Hot Box dancers give us a highly suggestive strip show to the tune of Take Back Your Mink; and in the Havana night club to which Sky takes Sarah, there is some very sensual dancing, at times between male couples (another nod to modernity).

Arlene Phillips’ dance routines are outstanding

Guys And Dolls at the Bridge Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

And that trip to Havana is the point at which Sky and Sarah fall in love. Sarah, having got drunk, gets in a fight, then sings the stand-out song If I Were A Bell. Celinde Schoenmaker hits jaws and notes with equal force. For me, this was the best of legendary choreographer Arlene Phillips’ many outstanding dance routines, as Sarah leaps on and off lampposts and free falls into Sky’s arms. Both song and movement express the exuberance of falling in love.

Daniel Mays is peerlessBack to the floating crap game: before Andrew Richardson‘s slightly rumpled Sky Masterton sings a tense version of Luck, Be A Lady, Nathan Detroit is found squirming in the threatening presence of the gangster Big Jule, played by Cameron Johnson. While Daniel Mays is perfectly capable as a singer, as an actor he is peerless. Think Del Boy Trotter meets Arthur Daley and you get some idea of his realisation of a character who is both dominant to those below him and submissive to those above. Nathan may have a New York accent but in Daniel Mays’ hands he is straight out of the East End, titfer and all.

Then, as the gamblers assemble in the Mission Hall, we come to the moment we’ve all been waiting for: Sit Down, You’re Rocking The Boat, another fast, intoxicating song. It’s a classic 11 o’clock number (the name given to a showstopper that comes near the end of a musical), and Cedric Neal as Nicely-Nicely Johnson certainly does stop the show!

The song gets the many encores it deserves and the audience expects, not only for Mr Neal’s enthusiastic singing but also for the way the congregation sway in unison in their seats- yet another inventive dance sequence choreographed by Arlene Phillips. It’s a climactic moment that catapults us to the resolution of the plot.

But it ain’t over til it’s over. After the finale featuring the song Guys And Dolls, and the bows and the applause, the cast stay on the floor to dance with the audience, as the orchestra under the direction of Tom Brady plays us out.

If I have one reservation, it’s this. It’s inevitable that, with the risers going up and down, there is minimum scenery. No problem most of the time, but occasionally you may lose track of where we’re supposed to be.

One last thing. While the show is intended to be immersive and is aimed first and foremost at those standing on the floor, not everyone will want to stand and look up for over two hours. If you decide to buy a seat, the best in my opinion are in the centre of stalls rows BB and CC. In these seats, you will be level with the actors on the raised platforms, and feel close to the action. You will also be able to see the splendid orchestra on the opposite side of the auditorium at the back of the circle, and, as a bonus, you will have easy access to the onstage party at the end of the show.

Guys And Dolls is at The Bridge Theatre until 2 September 2023

Paul paid for his ticket

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Oklahoma! with Arthur Darvill at Young Vic – review

The old songs still soar in this new look at Oklahoma!


Production photo from Oklahoma! at the Yougn Vic theatre in London featuring Arthur Darvill 2022
Arthur Darvill in Oklahoma! at Young Vic. Photo: Marc Brenner
If the optimistic, can-do nature of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals grates on you a little, the new Broadway production of Oklahoma!, now the Young Vic, will be right up your Stetson.
Daniel Fish‘s production, co-directed at the London end by Jordan Fein, examines this 20th century classic from a 21st century perspective. It’s even been nicknamed ‘Wokelahoma’ by some wags. Curly is less heroic, Judd less of a villain, the previously admirable strength of the Oklahoma community more sinister.
Let’s start with Laura Jellinek and Grace Laubacher ‘s design. Most of the audience is on either side of the stage, traverse style. On the back wall is a painting of open plains with sketches of a couple of farm buildings. At the other end is a live band. The unraised stage is bordered by long trestle-style tables; the cast stays on stage most of the time. It feels and is meant to feel like a community hall, all the more so because the entire auditorium is evenly and brightly lit. The last time I experienced this kind of lighting was when I went to see my daughter in a school play. It’s as if we the audience are part of that community and that the community is commenting on their own story. Very Brechtian. But this does mean emotional involvement and dramatic tension are kept at a distance.
The famous opening song Oh, what a beautiful mornin’ is sung initially by Arthur Darvill accompanying himself on guitar before others join in. Straightaway you know that this is going to be a different kind of Curly because, although he’s an attractive guy, he’s nothing like the famous Curlys of the past, tall, well built men like Arthur Drake, Howard Keel and Hugh Jackman. Mr Darvill is small and wiry, and, unlike those rich baritones, he has a beautiful tenor voice,  with a nice falsetto.
There was a certain way in which romantic male leads were expected to behave in the mid 20th century when Oklahoma! was written. Even if sensitivity does actually figure in the finest male roles of the period, Hammerstein clearly admired the strong self-assured roll-up-your-sleeves type of hero: the common man who built America. Like Curly. He is even contrasted with weaker male figures like Ali Hakim and Will Parker, played for a great many laughs by Stavros Demetraki and James Davis. Now, we can and usually do choose to take Curly’s character as being of its time, but in this production, looking through 21st century eyes, his charm does lean over into smarm, his cockiness becomes arrogance, his laddishness seems awfully like harassment, and his possessive jealousy spouts toxic masculinity. So he’s not as obviously attractive as one would normally expect.
Then again, nor is Jud the hired help as nasty. Curly’s prospective spouse Laurey is frightened of Jud, which is why she doesn’t reject him and thus he’s encouraged in his pursuit of her. By making him less sinister and more misunderstood, this production undermines the basis of her fear. Patrick Vaill plays Jud with sad-eyed sensitivity showing that he’s awkward with women. There’s a hint of the ‘incel’ about him and, although he’s potentially violent, it does seem that he’s despised by everyone simply because he’s a loner. He’s considered a genuine outsider, not simply someone from outside like Ali Hakim, who’s been accepted into the community. People’s descriptions of this nicely coiffed clean boy as dirty seem to stem from simple prejudice.
When Curly talks with Jud and encourages him to think about suicide, which I guess was always weird, the talk becomes distinctly nasty because it takes place in pitch black. Normally exit signs or some sliver of light enable your eyes to pick up something, but here you literally couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Then in the second act, when Curly is determined to outbid Jud in an auction, the humiliation of the outsider seems less like punishing him for his unpleasantness and more like simple malice.
Production photo from Oklahoma! at Young Vic theatre in London showing actora Anoushka Kucas and Arthur Darvill 2022
Anoushka Lucas and Arthur Darvill in Oklahoma! Photo: Marc Brenner

The lighting isn’t always bright or nonexistent. Sometimes Scott Zielinski’s design bathes the room in orange or green or shines spotlights, as befits the moment.

Rather than the country music you might associate with a southern state like Oklahoma, the band plays bluegrass style: in other words, lots of stringed instruments. And, under Musical Director Tom Brady, what a marvellous sound they make. That most romantic of songs People will say we’re in love is as beautiful as it could be.

Three women dominate this production

Anoushka Lucas plays Laurey as confused, vulnerable and passionate in equal measures. She’s not only a fine actor, she’s another fantastic singer.
Lisa Sadovy plays Aunt Eller with a twinkle in her eye, but harder and more cynical than you might expect. And all the better for that. The women definitely hold their own in this production.
The plot is unchanged, at least until the end. Curly makes clear he likes Laurie but plays it down a bit. Laurie feels the same about Curly but won’t admit it. The suppressed sexual desire rises like steam. When you think about it, an awful lot of this musical concerns young people desiring one another.
The surrey with a fringe on top is not the familiar jaunty tune that matches the rhythm of a horse and carriage. Instead, it’s slow and sensuous. The line ‘Don’t you wish it could go on forever and you’d never stop’ is delivered with a lascivious smile. It’s clear it’s another kind of ride Curly’s thinking about. 
Production photo from Oklahoma! at Young Vic in London showing actor Marisha Wallace 2022
Marisha Wallace in Oklahoma!

The emphasis on sex continues when we meet Ado Annie and her big number. I cain’t say no. She’s not portrayed as an amusingly silly girl but as a woman confident in her sexuality. Marisha Wallace is not only hilarious., she also has a tremendous voice that blasts the song into the category of showstopper.

Oklahoma! is famous for being one of the first, if not the first, musical to be led by the book, or story. So the songs serve the book, which was written by Oscar Hammerstein II, by revealing character and driving the narrative forward. It may also be the first to fully integrate dance. In fact, Agnes de Mille‘s choreographed dream sequence is one of the iconic moments in the original and her name still appears in the credits, even though her choreography has disappeared.
Now Laurey’s dream is a contemporary dance, choreographed by John Heginbotham. It starts with an electric guitar screaming a stretched out version of Oh, what a beautiful mornin’ that generated the same startled surprise in me as when I first heard Jimi Hendrix playing another classic, The Star Spangled Banner. This is the moment when Laurey is supposed to see clearly that she should choose Curly but it’s less explicit than Agnes de Mille‘s ballet so it confuses more than clarifies.
This production isn’t the only one recently to try to update Rodgers and Hammerstein. Chichester Festival Theatre‘s South Pacific, which is due a London run, dampened down the sexism and bolstered the anti-racism. The Open Air Theatre‘s Carousel faced its domestic violence head on. And I think this is right if we’re to continue to enjoy the positive qualities of their musicals.
However, the ending of this reimagining of Oklahoma! left me disappointed. Not a word has been changed., remember, but the actions have. For me, the reassessment of Curly’s character is pushed too far. I don’t want to give you a spoiler, but I’ll just say that the sham trial now seems like a real miscarriage of justice brought about by a community that sticks together against outsiders. And it makes the ending considerably downbeat.
While I love the new arrangement of the songs, the comedy, the sexiness, and the examination of maleness, I did hope to leave with a smile on my face. It felt like Daniel Fish had tried too hard to shoehorn the actual Oklahoma! into his vision of it.
Oklahoma! is performing at the Young Vic in London until 25 June 2022.