“The passengers were bound to resist”
Michael Buffong’s reinterpretation of Guys and Dolls, a co-production between the Royal Exchange and Talawa Theatre, is just that, a bold re-envisioning of the classic musical that consequently comes up with something different. That’s the point. So it may take a second to recalibrate, to adjust to these portrayals of familiar characters but in doing so you get to embrace something fresh and new and really rather exciting.
Moving the show from Times Square to the heart of the Harlem Renaissance in 1939 allows Buffong to employ an all-black cast, infuse Frank Loesser’s score with jazz and gospel (new orchestrations by Simon Hale) and introduce a vibrant choreographic vision (by Kenrick Sandy) that draws on several decades of dance history. The result is less-concept heavy than you might expect and often, explosively good fun.
So though it a Broadway fantasy, THE Broadway fantasy some might say, notes of realism percolate throughout. Ashley Zhangazha’s cocky demeanour as Sky is underlaid with nerviness that exposes it as bravado rather than god-like suaveness and Lucy Vandi’s Miss Adelaide is played for real pathos rather than easy comedy, perhaps appropriately for a woman who has clung on, seemingly hopelessly, to an engagement for 12 years.
It all means we engage more with these characters as people rather than archetypes – the heart genuinely warms as laughter escapes from Vandi in finally discovering the depths of Nathan’s love for her. And Zhangazha just makes you invest that much more in Sky and Sarah’s relationship as he peels back the cocksure persona to reveal a man you’d quite happily to go Havana with but actually stay there.
Ray Fearon is brilliant as a physically imposing Detroit and a sweet-voiced Abiona Omonua does her best with Sarah, who’s apparently a bit of wet blanket wherever she’s set. In the talented company, Danielle Kassaraté draws the eye as a smooth Angie the Ox, Fela Lufadeju pops with character as Benny and the too-charismatic-for-words Ako Mitchell is a delight as he leads them all in a joyous ‘Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat’.
Soutra Gilmour’s design successfully makes the transfer from Times Square, even if the neon signage isn’t quite as salubrious but the rainbow brights of her costumes keep us from ever getting too gritty. And it is a balance that the production as a whole gets right – Lord knows we won’t have to wait too long for the next traditional version of Guys and Dolls to appear so we should be welcoming this level of innovation, this opportunity for actors of colour to put roles like this on their CV, with bemoaning what the show ‘should’ be.