Frank Loesser’s 1950 musical comedy about sin and romantic redemption may seem dated in its themes, but Nicholas Hytner’s staging is a masterpiece of innovative mise-en-scène. The bridge’s auditorium has been radically redesigned for a strolling audience, with Bunny Christie’s mobile stage constantly reconfiguring, its platforms rising and revealing the bars, clubs and street corners of New York City. This line detracts from the drama to a degree, but captures the spirit of Damon Runyon’s original story and the never-ending hustle and bustle of his “Runyonland.” It is a wonder to see worlds being constructed before our eyes, accented by Paule Constable’s lighting design.
Some viewers have the option to watch from an outer row of the auditorium, and once I chose to sit, I regrettably felt removed from the immersive elements. It was clear that the strolling audience experienced the show differently.
Illuminated signs accompany scene changes, from the club where showgirl Miss Adelaide (Marisha Wallace, sensational as always) performs, to Sarah Brown’s (Celinde Schoenmaker) save-a-soul church mission. This signage, with its odd resemblance to that of the restaurant chain Ed’s Easy Diner, is a clever method of signage, and the orchestra performs delightfully from a raised booth with theatrical light bulbs surrounding it.
The musical’s story and themes feel utterly unconstructed in the face of this bold staging, with the Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows book and street slang sounding oddly stiff. While Daniel Fish’s brilliantly reimagined Oklahoma! – currently in the West End – has altered both content and form, this production achieves only the latter and is a resolutely traditional staging of the story itself, with period clothing (costumes by Deborah Andrews) and overly caricatured characters. The performances are strong – especially the vocals – even if there are few emotional points of contact. Wallace gives an entertaining rendition of Adelaide’s Lament along with the hilarious duet Sue Me, which he shares with Adelaide’s playing fiancé, Nathan Detroit (Daniel Mays). Schoenmaker and Andrew Richardson (as Sky Masterson) bring romance to I’ve Never Been in Love Before.
There is a potentially dangerous moment in this pivotal romance between Sarah and Sky when he is seductively drawn into a clinch with a man during their night out in Havana on a dance floor full of shirtless and shorts couples of men. The suggestion that Sky might be gay creates an exciting spark of subversion, but it’s an isolated moment that’s gone in a flash, as if it were a scene from a far more daring reimagining.
Perhaps because of the constantly reconstructing set, the drama itself never quite pulls us in, though there’s a sweet dynamic between Richardson and Schoenmaker, and good comic chemistry between Wallace and Mays. The choreography (by Arlene Phillips with James Cousins) never quite flies, perhaps due to the somewhat cramped sizes of the sets, but this show’s formal effort at reinventing itself offers much to admire, even if I did so more remotely .
• Guys and Dolls runs at the Bridge Theater in London until September 2nd.