Guys and Dolls review: You’ll struggle to find a classier revival

Nicholas Hytner’s immersive production sends audiences into the seedy, neon-lit underbelly of Depression-era New York

Isobel Lewis
Wednesday 15 March 2023 13:39 GMT
Cedric Neal and the cast of ‘Guys and Dolls’
Cedric Neal and the cast of ‘Guys and Dolls’ (Manuel Harlan)

In Nicholas Hytner’s production of Guys and Dolls, nothing stays still for long: not the cast, not the audience, not even the stage. After acclaimed immersive productions of Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Bridge Theatre boss turns the auditorium into Depression-era New York, a place that exists in a constant state of flux. Performers dance inches away from the crowd. Audience members are ushered onto tables on the stage. A marching band traipses through the masses. The staging may be inventive, but this production already feels like a classic, knowing when to rock the boat and when to stick to what works. And boy, does it work.

Hanging above the auditorium, bright neon signs point to the seedy underbelly of the city; a world of late nights and men who will gamble over just about anything. Nathan Detroit (Daniel Mays) is desperately trying to find a home for his next illegal crap game, while promising his fiancée of 14 years (girl, run) Adelaide (Marisha Wallace) that they’ll get married any day now. Nathan needs an impossible-to-lose wager and reckons he’s found one when he bets playboy Sky Masterson (Andrew Richardson) that he can’t “take a doll to Havana”, the doll in question being local preacher Sarah Brown (Celinde Schoenmaker).

The experience you have at Guys and Dolls will differ hugely based on whether you are seated or standing among the throng. The latter are led around by crew members (who, in a nice touch, are dressed like police officers), allowing Bunny Christie’s innovative set to rise out of the ground before the crowds. This proximity to the cast enables plenty of audience interaction, particularly when the characters are conspiratorially warned of “the sidewalks packed with many strange-looking citizens”. Elsewhere, the design is fairly traditional. The only hints at modernity are afforded to Adelaide and her Hot Box girls, whose performance outfits nod to pop superstars Madonna or Beyoncé. But even when their costumes are dripping in rhinestones and sequins, the bras they adorn are high cut and old-fashioned, mixing old and new.

Watching the swirling ensemble, you’ll find it hard to know where to look. But our leads confidently steer the show. Mays is slightly lacking in energy when he arrives on stage, but he swiftly picks up pace. Wallace, meanwhile, who recently picked up an Olivier nomination for her role in Oklahoma!, continues to dominate every musical she’s in. She doesn’t overdo this easy-to-overdo role, making the often twee “A Bushel and a Peck” genuinely sexy.

Celinde Schoenmaker (left) and Marisha Wallace (Manuel Harlan)

She and Mays make for a hilarious comedy pairing, with Wallace impressively steering the tempo whirlwind that is “Sue Me”. Sky and Sarah can’t match their chemistry, but Richardson is effortless and smooth in his debut professional stage performance, while Schoenmaker delivers crystal clear soprano tones with surprising bite.

But in the end, the best number isn’t reserved for our four lovebirds. No, it’s Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Cedric Neal) who gets those not already standing out of their seats with a showstopping rendition of “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat”. In these big, powerful group songs, the ensemble comes together. There are no distractions, and the audience regains any lost focus. We’re reminded why we’re here: to see musical theatre titans at the top of their game, singing their hearts out. As classy revivals of major musicals go, you’ll struggle to find better.

‘Guys and Dolls’ runs at the Bridge Theatre until 2 September

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