The West End is alive with the sound of musicals. One really does feel like performing a Julie Andrews-like whirl of joy, because these musicals are, for once, the genuine article. Hard on the heels of Billy Elliot and The Big Life, we now have Michael Grandage's utterly elating revival of Guys and Dolls at the Piccadilly.
This gifted director has hitherto shown a relish for selecting pieces (Merrily We Roll Along and Grand Hotel) that are perceived as flawed and then making them work triumphantly. So Frank Loesser's well-nigh-perfect 1950 classic might seem an ironic choice for him.
But with this co-production between the Donmar Warehouse (of which he's the artistic director) and the Ambassador Theatre Group, Grandage demonstrates that his touch is just as sure with proven hit material, and that the methods that have paid dividends for him in the small space of the Donmar (casting for character more than for singing prowess; uncluttered design that's in the service of drama rather than decoration, etc) continue to work on the larger canvas of the West End stage.
Guys and Dolls is a "fairy tale of New York", peopled with sidewalk gamblers who, in their hilarious stilted diction and their elaborate etiquette, could rival in formality the courtiers at Versailles. Grandage's production pitches perfectly the show's delicious mix of urban knowingness and pastoral innocence.
Unlike Jerry Zaks's 1992 Broadway revival, he does not patronise the characters by reducing them to garishly garbed cartoons. His fluent staging of the piece, with witty, concise sets by Christopher Oram, is wonderfully fresh and unencumbered by flashy false values. He understands, too, that while Guys and Dolls is the least mushy of all Broadway musicals, it also has more genuine heart. So he's chosen actors who make us truly care about the two intertwined love stories.
Jane Krakowski (of Ally McBeal fame) is an adenoidal delight as Miss Adelaide, radiating the incorrigible romantic hopefulness, the touchingly vague aspirations to refinement, and the gabby, exasperated realism of the Hot Box stripper who has been kept dangling for all of 14 years by Douglas Hodge's winningly hapless and virtually cross-eyed-with-anxiety Nathan Detroit.
Ewan McGregor plays Sky Masterson, the smoothie who takes on Nathan's bet that he won't be able to lure Sarah (an excellent Jenna Russell), the strait-laced Salvation Army girl, on a trip to Havana. McGregor makes up in boyish charm and smiling glamour what he lacks in natural singing skills, though he sounds a lot better than Marlon Brando did in the movie, and he lets rip with a perfectly placed final high note in the knockout "Luck Be a Lady" number.
It's an evening rich in show-stoppers. In the Havana nightclub sequence, Rob Ashford's terrific choreography embroils Sky and the squiffy Sarah in a fiercely funny and sexy feud of erotic jealousy danced out by two hot-blooded locals.
Martyn Ellis as Nicely Nicely whips the audience into ecstasy and the Salvation Army mission into a crazily anarchic version of hand-waggling revivalist delirium with his electrifying rendition of "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat".
Like those wondrously convenient dice possessed by the gangster Big Jule ("I had the numbers taken off for luck, but I remember where the spots formerly were"), this production of Guys and Dolls looks set to be a sure-fire winner.
Booking until 31 March 2006 (0870 060 0123). A version of this review has appeared in some editions of the paper