This new Donmar Warehouse production of Guys and Dolls has been one of the most anticipated West End events of the year, in no small part due to the presence of a certain Ewan McGregor in the cast. And for once the hype was deserved. Though vocally he does not deliver all that his performance in Moulin Rouge promised, he more than holds his own in this wonderful revival, directed by Michael Grandage.
It is twenty years since this magnificent musical last graced a London stage though many people have warm memories of the National Theatre’s production still firmly in their minds. The Donmar production at the Piccadilly Theatre has forsaken the brash showiness of many modern musicals to concentrate on the original story, by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows. This is a drama where people occasionally happen to burst into song; none of them have particularly strong voices but this merely strengthens the idea that they are real people. First and foremost this is a play; one populated with sleazy but ultimately loveable characters.
It’s true that Ewan McGregor has come in for a fair bit of press criticism over the strength of his voice; however, while it is not especially strong it does carry conviction. He plays Sky Masterson the charismatic gambler who accepts a bet to try and take uptight ‘Mission Doll’ Sergeant Sarah Brown, played by Jenna Russell, to Havana and eventually ends up falling for her. There is a genuine chemistry between McGregor and Russell and she manages to makes the initially obdurate Sarah endearing and the character’s gradual unbuttoning funny.
In the 1950s film of Guys and Dolls Frank Sinatra played the smooth Nathan Detroit, the man who organises the floating crap game and who bets Sky he can not take Sarah to Havana. In this production Douglas Hodge tackles the character completely differently. This Nathan is a looser, a small weasel of a man who has been running the crap game his whole life, yet despite all this Hodge manages to make him charming. You soon realise that despite his girlfriend Miss Adelaide’s ditzy nature she wears the pants in that relationship. Engaged to Nathan for 14 years she works in the Hot Box nightclub and is played fantastically by Jane Krakowski. Formerly Elaine in Ally McBeal she is a revelation in this production, displaying a genuine stage presence and charisma.
Though these four are the production’s main characters, special mention must be made for Martyn Ellis as Nicely Nicely Johnson and Cory English as Benny Southstreet who have many of the best numbers and perform them with real panache. Ellis succeeds in making Nicely’s testimony in the mission number ‘Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat’ a real show stopper.
The design for this production is in many ways quite traditional: Broadway is all cut outs and lights and Havana all palm trees and pot plants. Yet the choreography, by Rob Ashford, is modern, lively and exciting. In fact it is the dancing and the dancers which lift the experience from the merely enjoyable to the truly memorable. The large cast of male and female dancers enrich the intricate and complex dance numbers, especially the sequence in Havana and a later one in the sewers of New York.
While occasionally referencing productions that have gone before, this Guys and Dolls is a unique, thought provoking and highly entertaining romp through the sleazy Broadway of the thirties. Those who love musicals will certainly not be disappointed.