Guys and Dolls

Chichester Festival Theatre


Guys and Dolls

© Johan Persson

It’s hard to put your finger exactly on what makes Guys & Dolls such a classic, magical show. Is it the characters – the gambling low lifers Damon Runyon conjured from the streets of New York in the 1920s? Or the book that Jo Swerling Abe Burrows carved from two of Runyon’s short stories, The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown and Blood Pressure as well as other stories such as Pick the Winner? Is it Frank Loesser’s lyrics and music that hit a paradigm of musicality, combining wit and pathos?

Impossible to know. But what can be declared is that Chichester’s revival under the baton of American director Gordon Greenberg hits the jackpot.

Chichester’s way with musicals is itself beginning to become a bit of a legend. In the past few years, a slew of their home grown musicals have transferred to the West End including Kiss Me Kate, Sweeney Todd and The Pajama Game.

Now it looks very much as though they’ll have another on their hands with Greenberg’s production which not only stars Jamie Parker, Shakespeare Globe’s one-time Prince Hal and patriotic hell raiser, Henry V and Sophie Thompson but also sees Cuban international mega-star Carlos Acosta making his debut as choreographer at the £22m renovated West Sussex theatre.

That combination plus musical stalwarts such as Peter Polycarpou and a pitch perfect Clare Foster as the ubiquitous Sarah Brown, the Times Square Salvation Army major whose mission seems to be going nowhere until a certain Sky Masterson hoves into view, proves utterly irresistible.

Chichester’s cast isn’t large. In the time honoured way of the `golden age’ of American Broadway musicals of which this is one if not the apex (arguably vying with Gypsy just around the corner coming to this same theatre in October, with Imelda Staunton), Guys and Dolls’ set piece dance routines look compact if not overwhelming on the Festival Theatre widened stage.

But what they may lack in numbers this cast make up for in every other way of what is often complex but dazzling choreography. Peter McKintosh’s fluid set flicks us with effortless ease from Times square street corner, to sewer (for the archetypal crap game), to Havana for the knock down scene of Sarah Brown connecting with an inner self she never knew she had till Masterson came knocking. And how it glistens when it needs to, Time Square lit up as only Times Square can.

But best of all, are the songs, the humour – definitely New York Jewish at its most self-mocking in the hands of Polycarpou’s Nathan Detroit – and the characters.
This is after all a story – or fable as its sub-titled – of a world where even criminality ends up with a smile on its face be it, Harry the Horse, Big Jule or Nicely-Nicely Johnson whose `Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat’ is the all-time show-stopper.

But love, as in most musicals is what carries this musical through: love winning out against the odds. For Miss Adelaide – Sophie Thompson in possibly the performance of her career – it’s a fourteen year engagement to Nathan finally reaching its consumation (and there are quite a few sharp observations from both sides of the gender divide about how that marriage might be going to turn out!). And for Miss Sarah Brown, it’s the unlikely conversion of Masterson from smooth operator to paid-up, married missionary! The moment comes when stars begin to fall from his eyes and if anyone can resist the sweetness or the sense of wonder Jamie Parker brings to his `I’ve Never Been in Love Before’ without the tears pricking, well, romance has disappeared from your life!

Slick, colourful, beguiling, Chichester’s Guys and Dolls has heart and entertainment in, forgive the word, spades. A total triumph.

First published in Londongrip in August 2014