Theatre Review: GUYS AND DOLLS – Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Ashley Zhangazha as Sky Masterson and the cast of GUYS AND DOLLS. Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan

Ashley Zhangazha as Sky Masterson and the cast of GUYS AND DOLLS. Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan

Michael Buffong brings a unique twist to a timeless classic with GUYS AND DOLLS

Since GUYS AND DOLLS made its premiere on Broadway in 1950, the award-winning musical seen many revivals. From the 1955 film adaptation starring Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Frank Sinatra and Vivian Blaine, to the 2005 West End production starring Ewan McGregor and Jane Krakowski, Frank Loesser’s timeless musical remains as popular as ever before, with a new version co-produced by Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre and Talawa making history thanks to its all-black cast.

Based on the story and characters of Damon Runyon, GUYS AND DOLLS tells the story of professional gambler Nathan Detroit who is on the hunt for a new location for his big craps game. Needing $1,000 to pay a garage owner to host the game, Nathan bets fellow gambler Sky Masterson that he cannot get virtuous missionary Sarah Brown out for dinner in Havana. But as Sky attempts to persuade Sarah to go on a date, Nathan’s longtime fiancée Adelaide also increases the pressure as she wants him to go legit and marry her.

Fitting in neatly with the Talawa philosophy of providing parts that might otherwise be denied to black actors, Michael Buffong’s version of GUYS AND DOLLS transports the action from uptown New York to the traditionally black neighbourhood of Harlem. Gone are the bright neon signs of Times Square and it’s in place, is a more realistic, gritty urban environment by set designer Soutra Gilmour. Even Loesser’s timeless score has been given a distinctive jazz edge by musical supervisor Nigel Lilley with songs like LUCK BE A LADY and SIT DOWN YOU’RE ROCKING THE BOAT boasting a jazzier feel with bursts of bebop and gospel thrown in for good measure.

Fela Lufadeju as Benny Southwest and Ako Mitchell as Nicely Nicely Johnson. Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan

All of the cast deliver a strong performance, particularly Ray Fearon as hustler Nathan Detroit whose excellent comic timing and balance of strength and vulnerability brings the character to life on stage. Lucy Vandi is equally captivating as his long-term fiancée Miss Adelaide, delivering a steeliness and strength to the character instead of the usual ditzy portrayal.

There is some terrific supporting performances from Ako Mitchell as Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Fela Lufadeju as Benny Southstreet, as well as from Trevor A Toussaint who shines as veteran missionary Arvide Abernathy.

But the show truly belongs to Ashley Zhangazha as Sky Masterson and Abiona Omanua as Sister Sarah Brown, who ooze the all-important chemistry and light up the stage with their sequence in Havana.

Yet, while Buffong’s changes work for the most part, his decision to replace Miss Adelaide’s nightclub number A BUSHEL AND A PECK with PET ME POPPA from the 1955 film version, as well the reinterpretation of Adelaide’s LAMENT (the famous “a person could develop a cold” song) as a more serious torch song instead of the usual comedy number, may not be to everyone’s taste.

That said, this is a minor criticism and there is plenty to love about this production, particularly Kenrick Sandy’s sharp and slick choreography which transforms the stage into a colourful explosion of music and movement.

All in all, a unique twist on a timeless musical.

4 out of 5 stars

GUYS AND DOLLS runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 3 February 2018.