Thursday, 10 March 2011

Guys and Dolls - New Theatre, Cardiff

Writer: Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling & Abe Burrows
Director/Choreographer: Peter Rowe
Reviewer: Lucy Thackray

Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Sailsbury Playhouse & the New Wolsely Theatre, Ipswich’s tour of this classic Broadway musical is a winning production. It ticks many of the boxes for this well-loved material: high-energy choreography (by Francesca Jaynes), tight harmonies and crucially, not taking itself too seriously. Based on the short stories of Damon Runyon, and a huge hit on Broadway and the big screen, Guys and Dolls is guaranteed to lift your spirits.

Having reviewed the Chess tour last week, where the actors doubled as musicians onstage, I was surprised to see the company employing the same trick here. The Clwyd actors provided the brass and woodwind instruments for Frank Loesser’s big-band score, lingering upstage before or after their scenes to provide a trumpet solo or flute accompaniment to the core band of piano, bass and drums.

While this was an impressive showcase of the talents of the cast and musical director (Greg Palmer), I found it more of a distraction than a delight, as it was in Chess. During some intense dialogue scenes, my eyes were drawn to the cast members watching in the background, waiting for their cue. The band’s presence onstage was effective in the Hot Box and Havana scenes, but runs the risk of drawing you out of the action each time the musicians enter for their next number.

The cast is not listed in the programme in any hierarchy, which seems fitting once you realise who the true stars of the show are. While Robbie Scotcher and Laura Pitt-Pulford provide a sweet romance between Sky Masterson and Sarah Brown, the limelight is well and truly stolen by Gavin Spokes and Anthony Hunt as bumbling duo Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Benny Southstreet, and most of all, by Rosie Jenkins as Miss Adelaide. Doll-like and dainty, Jenkins has exactly the right appeal for her headlining cabaret character – you find it hard to take your eyes off her in most numbers.

She earns most of the evening’s laughs with her brilliant timing, striking the perfect balance between caricature and realism in a character that has the potential to be annoying. Her witty renditions of Adelaide’s Lament and the wonderfully sinister Marry the Man Today are real highlights. Gavin Spokes and Anthony Hunt set the bar high with the opening trio Fugue for Tinhorns (with Christopher Fry), and their slickly-choreographed duet Guys and Dolls.

Robbie Scotcher’s Sky Masterson is a little low-key, with not quite enough sex appeal for the romantic storyline to be believable, while Laura Pitt-Pulford as his pious lover has a little too much. Although offering a pleasant soprano sound at times, she is a little too husky, belty and knowing for the pure Sergeant Sarah Brown. Her inebriation in Havana is portrayed as a raucous, sexually voracious drunkenness, rather than becoming innocently tipsy, and what should be a sexually-charged, pivotal scene when the two first meet in the mission becomes merely an argument between two confident, headstrong people.

Ben Fox is suitably henpecked and lovable as wheeler-dealer Nathan Detroit, and his voice is one of the strongest. Paul Kissaun produces some of the best one-liners as intimidating gambler Big Jule, and Kraig Thornber as Harry the Horse perfectly encapsulates the oddball magic of Detroit’s crowd of sinners. Some accents are impeccably Runyonesque, others fall a little short.

The ensemble numbers with the gamblers are superbly sung and choreographed, and while the production feels overlong, Clwyd Theatr Cymru get away with it by performing all the favourites – the title number, The Oldest Established and Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat – with such panache. Overall, this is a toe-tapping night out for anyone who loves the punchy score and screwball-comedy plot of this classic show.

Runs until 12th March
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