Theatre Review: Guys And Dolls, Empire Theatre, Liverpool

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Image Source: Guys and Dolls

Written By: Mark Armstrong

Format: Comedy Drama
Genre: Musical
Date: March 17 2016
Location: Liverpool Empire Theatre

Sometimes, prior to a theatre show, the title of the production conjures up a particular image. For instance, The Sound Of Music shows initially makes one think about the classic movie version. And Jersey Boys reminds you of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. These are interlinked, of course, so the comparisons are understandable if not obvious.

However, as a 27-year-old theatre reviewer, when I heard that Guys and Dolls was imminent for the Liverpool Empire Theatre, there was one image, one scene, or perhaps even one man, which immediately sprung to mind.

Image Source: Simpsons Wiki

And this picture provides a clue:

For those unfamiliar, this was Mark Hamill, the man who played Luke Skywalker, who during a guest appearance on The Simpsons starred in a version of Guys and Dolls which hilariously cast him as Luke Skywalker, not Nathan Detroit (the lead character in G&D), and with Luck Be A Lady changed to incorporate lyrics about Star Wars (“Luke Be A Jedi”). Not to mention the first Guys and Dolls song which Hamill points out, on this Simpsons episode, isn’t even in the show.

The reason I bring that up (besides the great comedy value of the scene) is that for a younger generation, this is what first comes to mind when thinking of Guys and Dolls. For an older audience, however, the initial thoughts consist of the classic original Broadway production, or of the 1955 film starring the likes of Frank Sinatra, Jean Simmons and Marlon Brando, or of its various London/West End incarnations over the last few decades.

And it is this version of the show which came to the Liverpool Empire Theatre. It contains song, dance, drama, comedy and several other elements which ensure that this production has a little bit of everything. Certain parts stand out more prevalently than others, but the story itself is an intriguing if occasionally confusing tale.

Set in New York in the early 20th century, we soon meet three regular gamblers, Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Jack Edwards), Benny Southstreet (Mark Sangster), and Rusty Charlie (Christopher Howell), who are employed by Nathan Detroit (Maxwell Caulfield), a man who regularly runs crapshoot games and makes bets on the likes of horse races. Problem is, Nathan is soon out of pocket, whilst in the meantime he looks to maintain a relationship with Miss Adelaide (Louise Dearman), to whom he has been engaged for 14 years and with Adelaide having told her mother (who we don’t see, and who hasn’t ever really seen Nathan) that they have in fact been married for a dozen years and currently have five children.

To try and resolve his financial problems, Nathan makes a bet with Sky Masterson (Richard Fleeshman) which sees Sky taking Sarah Brown (Anna O’Byrne), a religious lady who looks to help sinners as part of the Save-A-Soul Mission, to Havana Club in Cuba. This actually leads to Sky and Sarah developing genuine feelings for each other, which eventually should see Nathan reap the benefits to the tune of $1,000. Matters are complicated when the Mission is threatened with cancellation barring a strong attendance at a midnight prayer meeting, but not before Nathan avoids arrest for the illegal running of a craps game by agreeing on the spot to marry (or elope as the show notes) Adelaide the following night (after persuasion by his gambling friends).

As the show rolls on, the plots interweave as both Adelaide and Sarah are disappointed that Nathan and Sky won’t stop gambling, especially after an extended crapshoot involving Chicago gangster Big Jule (Cameron Johnson) which prevents Nathan and Adelaide solidifying their relationship. It all comes to a head as each major plotline – the Nathan/Adelaide relationship, the ongoing bets between Nathan and Sky and his other friends, the Sky/Sarah romance and the situation surrounding the Save-A-Soul Mission – is tied up in an extended series of scenes which all interlink, thereby ensuring that each story is wrapped up without any remaining questions.

Caulfield does a convincing job as Nathan, as does Fleeshman as Sky; Fleeshman, in fact, delivers the vocal performance of the night during the show’s most famous number, Luck Be A Lady. Another stand-out song is Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat, performed by most of the cast.

Of other characters, Dearman comes across as genuine and likeable in her role as Adelaide, as intended, whilst O’Byrne manages to transform from the serious sin-preventing religious lady to the more laid-back, head-over-heels-in-love damsel in a seamless fashion. I also have to mention Cameron Johnson who provides a number of minor yet notably funny moments due to his intimidating presence as Big Jule, which makes regular lines that bit more humorous.

On the downside, I felt that the show lasted too long; whilst the production does adhere to its predecessors, three hours (including a 20-minute break) meant that the audience was somewhat restless during the final half-hour; some significant scenes towards the end, which were entertaining, would have had more of an impact had the crowd not been watching for two hours+ at that point. The scenes between musical numbers also seemed a bit lengthy in that around 10-15 minutes of straight dialogue would occur without song, dance or even any one-liners, which increased the feeling that the show was dragging somewhat.

Conversely, I felt that the lighting was very good, especially during club scenes which were decided to light up the New York atmosphere, so to speak. The background images of product logos and images relevant to the era were a nice touch, and while the settings were a little on the simple side, they were effective enough to make any events in a more unusual location (especially the Cuba scene) seem unique and more memorable.

I definitely think that the older generation will most appreciate Guys and Dolls; it is a very enjoyable show, but one which has content that will most appeal to the more mature audience. Younger people will still gleam entertainment from it, but the long running time and occasionally lengthy scenes of general non-activity may result in them struggling a little bit to appreciate the show as a whole.

Overall, though, I would recommend Guys and Dolls as an extravagant and enjoyably nostalgic hark back to more innocent times, combined with some spectacular song and dance numbers and several strong acting performances. Just don’t expect an appearance by Mark Hamill.

Overall Rating: 7.5/10 – Good