Black British-based actors like Clarke Peters, Clive Rowe and Sharon D Clarke have previously starred in the National Theatre’s 1996 revival of Guys and Dolls as Sky Masterson, Nicely-Nicely Johnson and General Cartwright respectively. But in this co-production between Manchester’s Royal Exchange and Talawa, director Michael Buffong goes one big step further and turns this magical Broadway fantasy into a world populated entirely by black actors.
The action has been shifted about 90 blocks north of its original Times Square setting to the heart of Harlem, at 135th Street and Broadway, a traditionally black neighbourhood. That relocation coaxes orchestrator Simon Hale to lend Frank Loesser’s gorgeous and tuneful score plenty of jazz-age inflections. This sometimes feels a bit too emphatic and distracts from the melodies we know and love; there are times when they have to fight to be heard above the underscoring.
There are some further odd choices. A Bushel and a Peck, the show’s hilarious first act nightclub number for Miss Adelaide, is replaced with Pet Me Poppa from the 1955 film version. This is a mistake, as is the rather bizarre rendering of Adelaide’s Lament (“a person could develop a cold”) as a fierce and defiant torch song, instead of a comedy number.
The show should be as mythical as it is magical, but taking Guys and Dolls out of Times Square – and away from the usual neon hoardings that designers typically try to recreate – also takes the show away from a fantasy version of New York and grounds it in somewhere more realistic. Designer Soutra Gilmour’s set instead provides more gritty urban environments, losing some of the magic en route.
But even these unnecessary interventions can’t entirely disrupt or extinguish the golden-hearted generosity and spirit of this quintessential Broadway masterpiece, the single greatest achievement of all the classic golden age musicals.
The cast are forced to push against a flawed concept, but there are some spirited and inspired performances nonetheless. Ray Fearon – a fine classical actor at both this address and for the Royal Shakespeare Company – is an imposing and formidable Nathan Detroit, a professional facilitator of gambling events who offers a perfect balance of strength and vulnerability.
As his long-time fiancee (12 years and counting) Miss Adelaide, Lucy Vandi is a striking presence and boasts a full-bodied voice. Ashley Zhangazha isn’t the usual smooth operator that Sky Masterson is supposed to be, but his tentativeness is neatly offset by Abiona Omonua’s buttoned-up Sister Sarah Brown.
There are also some delightful supporting performances, most especially Trevor A Toussaint as veteran missionary Arvide Abernathy who brings a tender gravitas to More I Cannot Wish You, and Ako Mitchell and Fela Lufadeju as Nathan’s sidekicks Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Benny Southstreet.
Kenrick Sandy, best known as co-founder of Boy Blue Entertainment, puts the ensemble through some finger-clicking choreography that turns songs like Luck Be a Lady and Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat into joyful explosions of music and movement.