The Bridge Theatre has had most success with its immersive productions, Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which made the best of the flexible space and have created new ways to tell familiar stories by putting the audience at the heart of the action. While the role of the crowd was a little fudged in the Athenian woods, the physicality of the very mob that all the key political figures must appeal to created an additional verve for Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy. Now, the audience become the sinners of downtown New York for the Bridge Theatre’s first ever musical, a show that is sure to be a hit when it officially opens later in the month, with great performances and a Technicolor visual design. But it is the technical management and directorial inventiveness of the production that really underpins its future success.
There has been a major trend for revisiting old musicals in recent years to update their overly romantic sensibilities and, in some cases, return to the original source material to mine the darker and more troubling themes that always lingered beneath the surface. From Regent’s Park Theatre’s Evita and Carousel to West End revivals of Cabaret and more recently Oklahoma!, reimagining the classic musicals has brought depth and invention to a sometimes deeply sentimental genre. Nicholas Hytner’s production of Guys & Dolls, however heads in a slightly more traditional direction, at least in the interpretation, retaining the glossy and glamorous exterior and finding fresh purpose in the excellent and very well managed immersive staging.
As with Hytner’s previous immersive shows, this relies on a series of raised blocks that emerge from the theatre floor in a carefully coordinated sequence that produce the various locations of this story. Designer Bunny Christie has created a road map on the floor of the pit where the immersive audience gather, a series of streets that make up this particular part of the city, Broadway, where most of the action takes place. Suspended above their heads at circle level are traffic lights and neon signs that point to cafes and bars, giving a flavour of 50s New York, a place filled with gamblers, showgirls and the odd Salvation Army mission.
The genius of Christie’s design is in how sections of the floor rise seamlessly to form connected trajectories through which the characters and the story can advance. The earlier Shakespeare productions demonstrated how well these platforms can work, creating a chain of mini stages which allows the cast to travel, but its potential has never been better realised than here in Christie’s design for Guys & Dolls which requires a complex network of perfectly timed blocks to appear, often at different levels and in different configurations running across the length of the pit. It creates staging opportunities in all four corners of the performance area as well, ensuring the seated in the round audience at the various circle levels are also able to engage with the production.
The result is an incredibly satisfying one whatever type of ticket you choose. Christie’s clever combination of building blocks creates street scenes the wind their way at angles across the floor from which characters can enter restaurants, clubs, bars and even a barber’s shop while placing a set of these together forms a larger rectangular playing space in the centre of the room to form the heart of the Hot Box club where Miss Adelaide performs her raunchy stage show or the interior of Sarah Brown’s Mission House where some of the most famous numbers will take place. Christie’s design is endlessly inventive as the story travels briefly to Havana as well as below ground to the New York sewer where Nathan Detroit’s vital craps game takes place.
Most locations are sparsely but suggestively propped to create the right atmosphere and tone for the scenes including pieces of recognisably American street furniture such as the fire hydrant and globe-style lamps to some cabaret tables hinting at a larger nightclub venues, as well as chain ropes that suggest the gantries of the subterranean scene. Lit by Paule Constable, the green-tinge of the city’s underworld is nicely balanced by the bright bulbs of Broadway while the rousing Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat sequence blends both together to create a sparky movement piece with a dreamlike feel that becomes more daring as the number unfolds. Constable has taken inspiration from 50s Hollywood movies in selecting particular tones and clarity of light for this and the club sequences that reference numerous starlet performances from the Golden Age of moviemaking.
More generally, the strong, almost cartoon colours creates a hyper-reality that allows the characters to be bold and brash, larger-than-life creations living in a colour pop world. There’s no deep moralising or attempt to reconcieve the show for a twenty-first century audience, but instead the design and production choices lean into the overtly comic and overtly romantic themes of the story, facilitating a space in which both can exist side-by-side. This is a sanitised version of both love and crime, where only one of the gamblers carries a gun and the worse thing any of these men do is keep a woman waiting for 14-years to get married. And it works, allowing the excitement of the unexpected staging arrangements to add novelty without overhauling the story.
The show itself is, like many classic musicals, about whether you should change for love. And pleasingly, this one focuses on changing the men. Neither Miss Adelaide or devoted Salvation Army Sergeant Sarah require a Sandy from Grease overhaul and it is their gambler beaux who must prove themselves worthy of the women they eventually realise they love more than their wild late night life. While what’s on offer is largely a traditional future with themes of settling down, staying home every night and steady dependability, which may not seem like everyone’s idea of a happy ending, Hytner makes a couple of additions that add a more contemporary resonance.
The first is a dance piece set in one of the Havana clubs that Sky Masterson takes Sarah to during their brief trip, a location where men only dance with each other and no other women are seen, the only place in the show where an alternative to the heteronormative perspective is offered. But Hytner also makes Sky one of the dancers, engaging briefly in some intimate caresses with his partner. It’s used as a comic scene to arouse Sarah’s drunken jealous as she starts a chaotic fight with the dancers, but this hint at Sky’s more fluid sexuality is an interesting one, although not followed through anywhere else in the production or in Andrew Richardson’s characterisation. A second addition is more of an addendum to facilitate the individual cast bows as the Hot Box club becomes Adelaides, suggesting a quiet life in the country wasn’t quite what the eternal fiancee wanted after all.
Arlene Phillips and James Cousins’s choreography will invariably sharpen before the Press performance but, like Constable’s lighting scheme, this takes its cue from the jazz ballet style of the classic musicals. Occasionally, due to the thin rectangular shape of the various mini-stages, it feels a little cramped for the dancers which makes it seems as though they are holding back with curtailed stretches and not quite finished lines (perhaps deliberately) but Phillips and Cousins have created some great showbiz numbers on the large central rostrum for the pivotal Luck Be a Lady as well as those staged at Hot Box Club for Miss Adelaide’s saucy performances including A Bushel and a Peck – and this is a musical with consciously sung numbers as part of someone’s profession but also with introspective character monologues and duets where they reflect on their emotional responses and expectations.
It’s very early days but the cast are already having a great time, particularly Daniel Mays in the comic role of Nathan Detroit. Less smooth than Sinatra but perhaps far more human, this is a rare chance for Mays to enjoy a funny man role that is already winning the hearts of the audience while his interpretation of Detroit as a loveable rogue suits the tone of Hytner’s show. Mays also has great chemistry with Marisha Wallace whose Miss Adelaide embraces the sultry numbers and Christie’s beautiful showgirl costume designs. Wallace’s powerful vocal can fill this large room but she balances the professional performer in Miss Adelaide with the long-suffering sweetness of a woman holding out for an apple pie American family.
Lovers Celinde Schoenmaker as Sarah Brown and Richardson as Sky Masterson are developing a great chemistry that makes their connection believable, while the comedy scenes in Cuba as Sarah over-imbibes are a lot of fun for both actors. It is an accelerated relationship given the relatively short 2 hour and 40-minute running time so both characters compromise on their principles almost immediately, but there is something lovely in watching them grow towards one another, overcoming their slightly aloof tendencies and merging Schoenmaker’s operatic style with Richardson’s more classic musical vocals. And Cedric Neal is sure to feature in future reviews with a small role as Nicely-Nicely Johnson but delivery of the show’s big number Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat which in combining choreography, staging and performance is a real highlight.
This production of Guys & Dolls is a show that needs to give both the immersive and seated audience an equally rich and entertaining experience while carefully managing the standing participants around the room. The use of ushers and stage managers dressed as New York cops is a great touch, helping them to blend in but with an authority for crowd control that facilitates the changes of set, moves props and actors safely into position and out again, as well as ensuring the seamless running of a piece that is not easy to stage. Hytner’s directorial control of all of this feels just right in a complex show that may tell a glossy and lively story but requires a technical management of the floorspace and a quality control that you really don’t see in other theatres or indeed other immersive shows. Hytner’s production may not take the revisionist approach of other modern musical interpretations but there is plenty of innovation and invention in the staging choices that will set this apart. The Bridge hasn’t always got it right and to some extent every theatre production is a gamble, but this roll of the dice should prove a winner.
Guys & Dolls is at the Bridge Theatre until 2 September with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog