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Review: Guys and Dolls

Anuli Changa reviews Talawa Theatre Company’s production of the classic musical at the Royal Exchange

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The Royal Exchange Theatre and Talawa Theatre Company have put on the UK’s first all-black cast of Guys and Dolls, and it is absolutely incredible.

Director Michael Buffong transports the classic musical to 1939 Harlem in a tremendous exhibition of black talent and, more importantly, amazing musical theatre talent in general.

The Royal Exchange Theatre is a wonderful venue, in the round, with a moving centre used to great effect so that no audience member ever felt out of the action in any scene or number. I don’t believe there was a bad seat in the house, an outstanding feat of direction.

Guys and Dolls follows Nathan Detroit and his doomed crap (dice) game, as he attempts to evade the clever Lieutenant Brannigan and hide from his fiancée of 14 years,  Miss Adalaide. Detroit makes a rash bet with Skye Masterson that Skye can’t take Mission Church leader Sarah Brown on a date to Havana (yes, Havana, Cuba) in a bid to fund the dice game. The original music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows take the audience on a journey of sin, betting and the relationships that suffer and thrive in the process.

The wonderful musicians coordinated by orchestrator Simon Hale and led by Musical Director Mark Aspinall were faultless. They also complimented a very talented cast.

Ray Fearon as Nathan Detroit was a joy to watch, with the charm and anxiety the complicated character demands. Fearon had a wonderful presence and chemistry with the powerhouse Lucy Vandi playing Miss Adalaide. Vandi brought flavours of soul to the character and owned every song whether a ballad or comedic number. ‘Marry The Man Today’ a song that has never stood out to me in a soundtrack of well known numbers, takes on a new lease of life when performed by Vandi and Abiona Omonua (as ‘mission doll’ Sarah Brown).

‘Luck Be A Lady’ did more than deliver as a musical number. Led by Ashley Zhangazha as Sky Masterson, a triumph of vocals and dance.

Choreographer Kenrick Sandy MBE,  known for his commercial and hip hop style, harmonised the jazz moves one comes to expect from Guys and Dolls with a new swagger of hip hop, break dancing and African dance influences. Stand out dancers were Danielle Kassarate and Toyan Thomas-Browne.

Kassarate in her ability to take on the stereotypically male physicality of her gambler character Angie The Fox and otherwise shift back into blend with the female ensemble. Thomas-Browne, notably one of the youngest in the cast displayed amazing control and beautiful movement in the multiple styles of dance.

The hit of the whole show has to be their version of ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat’.  Ako Mitchell’s Nicely-Nicely Johnson was wonderful to watch and with some unexpected ad-libs from General Matilda B. Cartwright (Melanie Marshall) and the addition of a tambourine, we were no longer in a Harlem mission but a gospel church!

Guys and Dolls was a thoroughly entertaining experience throughout, the room tangibly buzzing with the talent displayed. Michael Buffong and his amazing cast and creatives leave you feeling like you’re watching a brand new show!

It was a show of many risky fusions that all pay off, and I defy anyone not to love it.