Behind the glitz and glamour of Broadway there lies a darker, seedier underworld. Well at least there was in the 1950s world of Damon Runyon.
His collected short stories, based on real life characters, paint a vivid picture of life in New York away form the greasepaint and bright lights of the Great White Way. Runyon’s tales provide the backdrop for Frank Loesser’s musical Guys & Dolls, revived at the New Wolsey Theatre as centrepiece of their 10th birthday celebrations.
An ode to Broadway may seem an obvious choice for a theatrical birthday party but, aside from a delightfully dizzy cabaret performer, this isn’t a tale of showbiz folk. Instead, the uneasy proximity of the Save-a-Soul Mission and a group of New York gamblers forms the central crux of the plot with a double helping of romantic strife to liven up the proceedings.
Loesser’s musical seems an inspired choice for what has now become the New Wolsey Theatre’s trademark actor/musician style, and director Peter Rowe has assembled a team of 22 versatile actors who also play Loesser’s evocative score.
This is the largest team of actor musicians the New Wolsey has ever assembled but conversely they are less integrated into the action than in previous offerings; often acting as a backing band, albeit in costumed character, than truly taking part in the action with their instruments.
The moments when the music and action are one are some of the strongest sequences of the show; a gloriously upbeat Havana bar scene and an infectious rendition of Sit Down You’re Rockin’ The Boat show the potential for the actor musician concept but, overall, it’s an underused opportunity.
As befits Runyon’s vivid creations, there are some richly drawn characters here, all attempting to make their own way in the big bad city.
In a strong company several performances stand out. Ben Fox’s Nathan Detroit is walking bag of nerves, always trying to stay one step ahead of the law and two steps ahead of his fiancée of 14 years, Miss Adelaide, played with a spirited mix of innocence underpinned with steel by Rosie Jenkins.
Laura Pitt-Pulford’s mission leader Sgt Sarah Brown sings up a storm with If I Were A Bell as she battles her religious upbringing with her burgeoning (albeit alcohol fuelled) feelings for lifetime gambler Sky Masterson.
Libby Watson’s design makes clever use of perspective to convey the streets of New York as well as a quick excursion to Cuba on the small stage, although Nick Richings’ ambivalent lighting design adds little atmosphere to the evening. Some further work on the sound balance for the New Wolsey stage would also benefit as some sections of Loesser’s witty lyrics are lost in the general exuberance.
Peter Rowe’s oddly static direction tries to have great fun with the material but as a result fails to bring many of Runyon’s characters to life. It is also a very long show, running at a fraction under three hours – not helped with problems with pace.
Of course this may be down to settling into a new venue and will hopefully improve as the run develops.
In a time, though, when many musicals have abandoned plot and character in favour of spectacle and the jukebox, Guys and Dolls remains a classic and affectionate love affair with Broadway.