We saw Guys and Dolls at the Royal Exchange last Tuesday. It was another collaboration with Talawa, the UK’s “primary Black led touring company.” We saw their Lear which was quite credible, but this Guys and Dolls was bliss from before the start until the finish.
The last time I saw Guys and Dolls was…never? Maybe only the teaser for a high school show. Whichever, it was memorable for me because the actor singing “Luck be a Lady Tonight” chose to draw out the “niiiiiiiiiiight” and he was flat. So very flat. It was the first time I had perceived a note as off key (and identified the direction) which proved I wasn’t “tone deaf” as my family was used to saying of us all. There was no comparable revelation from this performance, but it was still amazing.
It was an almost entirely black cast and instead of just playing it colour blind, they made some shifts: they relocated uptown (135th street), they jazzed and swung up the arrangements a bit, and they snuck in a bit of hip hop influence into the choreography. The set was perfect and a bit different for the Exchange…they built over one exit and, I think, some house seating. It looked like a freaking street corner.
Everything was great. The acting was a bit broad…but that’s how Guys and Dolls is supposed to be. This is now my Guys and Dolls.
While the press I’ve seen seems mostly positive, there was one review that was more negative:
The action has been shifted about 90 blocks north of its original Times Square setting to the heart of Harlem, at 135th Street and Broadway, a traditionally black neighbourhood. That relocation coaxes orchestrator Simon Hale to lend Frank Loesser’s gorgeous and tuneful score plenty of jazz-age inflections. This sometimes feels a bit too emphatic and distracts from the melodies we know and love; there are times when they have to fight to be heard above the underscoring.
There are some further odd choices. A Bushel and a Peck, the show’s hilarious first act nightclub number for Miss Adelaide, is replaced with Pet Me Poppa from the 1955 film version. This is a mistake, as is the rather bizarre rendering of Adelaide’s Lament (“a person could develop a cold”) as a fierce and defiant torch song, instead of a comedy number.
The show should be as mythical as it is magical, but taking Guys and Dolls out of Times Square – and away from the usual neon hoardings that designers typically try to recreate – also takes the show away from a fantasy version of New York and grounds it in somewhere more realistic. Designer Soutra Gilmour’s set instead provides more gritty urban environments, losing some of the magic en route.
But even these unnecessary interventions can’t entirely disrupt or extinguish the golden-hearted generosity and spirit of this quintessential Broadway masterpiece, the single greatest achievement of all the classic golden age musicals.
None of this makes sense. At all. The set is more realistic, in some sense, but has a big old nod to neon in the pharmacy shop sign. More importantly, I did find it more mythic and magical that realistic. It was Jazz Age Harlem. Similarly, “Adelaide’s Lament” sure worked for the audience I was in as both torch song and funny. (Partly funny because torch song!)
This is the parochial review of someone with a fixed notion of what Guys and Dolls should be and unable to see the very things they were looking for (even if they didn’t like the manifestation).
To be fair, I suspect I’m going to feel that way of other productions going forward!
For example, I find myself cold about Brando’s “Luck be a Lady”:
Give me Talawa!
Similarly, for “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat”, I loved Talawa’s (esp the choreography) (seen here in bits and pieces):
The one from the Brando film just seems sowrong. First, all those white people! I found that incredibly jarring. Second, it’s so static:
Even the 2016 version which is less static doesn’t have the exuberance of the Talawa one:
Anyway, there you go.
I didn’t realise that this was the first ever black Guys and Dolls in the UK. I wonder what the US ones have been like.
I hope they have a cast album. I hope to listen to the original cast recording to compare.