Sunday, August 31, 2014

"Guys and Dolls": Yesterday once more...

In 1982, I saw the greatest production ever staged of the greatest musical ever written.  There, Constant Reader, I have said it.  I can say it with confidence because there will never be a company assembled with such an array of talents to draw on, both onstage and off.  I am of course talking about Richard Eyre's now-legendary production of GUYS AND DOLLS.  As you are my Constant Reader you will have read my previous blogs where I have talked about my love for this production - oh ok... look here and here.

The importance of that production was that it turned me literally overnight into a theatre fan while making me realise the special alchemy that can happen between a company of actors and the audience watching them.  And it was a damn fine production.  I know I will never see it's like again but what of future generations?  They must be allowed to experience the joy that Abe Burrows & Jo Swerling's book and Frank Loesser's score combine to make so revivals must be staged.  You just have to hope that they are staged by talented people who understand what the show needs to make it flow.

The Donmar's 2005 revival has faded to a sepia memory but the current revival at the Chichester Festival Theatre left me dazzled, smiling and thoroughly happy - just what this show can do like no other.

Gordon Greenberg's production does nothing to stand in the way of the show's inner motor which powers along through it's plot derived from two stories by Damon Runyan.

Nathan Detroit needs $1000 to secure a place for his floating crap game which he has to hide from both the police and Miss Adelaide, his fiancee of 14 years.  He bets the legendary gambler Sky Masterson that he cannot take the strait-laced Salvation Army Sergeant Sarah Brown to Havana but when Sky pulls off the bet, the couple find themselves falling in love.  Once back on Broadway Sky and Sarah discover the gamblers have used her empty Mission for their crap game and Sarah breaks with Sky... how will we ever get to the happy ending that they and we deserve?

What must frighten any potential revival directors is the knowledge that the show just *works* so if something isn't working then it's your production.  Greenberg luckily has trusted in the material and by and large comes through unscathed although not without the odd audible sigh from me at a missed opportunity or two.

He has cast very well which fits his production just right with one surprising exception.  I have enjoyed Clare Foster's previous performances in CRAZY FOR YOU and MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG but here it felt like she still doesn't have a handle on Sarah, she certainly can play the righteous Sergeant but didn't convince at all that there was anything else to the character.  It is frustrating as it throws the quartet of lovers off-kilter, leaving Jamie Parker with not an awful lot to work with.

Parker is one of the production's big successes. Charismatic and likable, he also has a very good singing voice and I loved in particular how he worked his way through I'VE NEVER BEEN IN LOVE BEFORE, really putting over Sky's own surprise at his feelings.  He also delivered a powerful LUCK, BE A LADY.  I will always compare any Sky against Ian Charleson's performance but Jamie Parker certainly delivers.

A major plus was also Peter Polycarpou as Nathan Detroit who suggested his put-uponess without making him a complete nebbish. He certainly made an excellent foil for Sophie Thompson's Miss Adelaide.  As bright and larger-than-life as Peter McKintosh's permanent backdrop of advertising signs, Sophie effortlessly got her laughs sliding up and down her vocal range and also delivered a delightful ADELAIDE'S LAMENT.  If she lacked that spark of lovability that Julia McKenzie had that made the part forever hers, Sophie still thoroughly deserved the huge cheer at her curtain call and her performance made me feel very proud for her.

Their supporting cast were also all worth the price of admission: Harry Morrison and Ian Hughes made a likable pair as Nathan's gophers Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Benny Southstreet with Morrison stepping up nicely-nicely to belt across the show-stopping SIT DOWN YOU'RE ROCKING THE BOAT with excellent help from Melanie La Barrie as the formidable General Cartwright.

I also liked the other double act of Nick Wilton as a pugnacious Harry The Horse and Nic Greenshields as Big Jule, a big noise from Chicago.  I should also mention Neil McCaul's resoundingly Scots Arvide Abernathy who sang a nice but shortened version of MORE I CANNOT WISH YOU.  Sadly, although all good, none of the chorus really stood out which is where Eyre's production will always trump other revivals as he cast such unique talents as his ensemble players, giving them all a back story and a definite personality.

As I mentioned before, Peter McKintosh's standing set of a rainbow of fragmented vintage ads worked much better than I expected and an unexpected treat was to be seated high enough to be able to appreciate the way the highly polished stage mirrored the action on it.

A major coup for the production is securing the services of fashionable choreographer Carlos Acosta in his musical staging debut but while his routines are a cut above the usual fare - especially for the male dancers - they didn't exactly strike me as being generic to this particular show.  What he is to be applauded for is staying away from any "dance" elements and keeping them all within the musical theatre tradition.  Kudos too for Tim Mitchell's eye-popping lighting and the always-dependable Gareth Valentine's steady music direction.

The cherry on my slice of Mindy's cheesecake - or was it strudel? - was seeing Sophie Thompson afterwards, alarmingly for the first time in 10 years!  I first met Sophie in sister Emma's dressing room in 1986 when she was in ME AND MY GIRL and have watched her successes with a paternal pride.  It was lovely to see her again, get a hug and tell her how much I loved her in this, my most favourite of shows.

I had been more than somewhat nervous about seeing this revival but Gordon Greenberg's production is a joy from start to finish and the thought did cross my mind that hopefully yesterday afternoon, someone was sitting in the same auditorium and had a similar life-changing experience that I had when I first made the acquaintance of these eternally wonderful GUYS AND DOLLS.

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