Frank Loesser’s 1950 musical comedy about romantic sin and salvation might seem dated in its themes, but Nicholas Hytner’s production is a feat of innovative staging. The auditorium at The Bridge has been radically retooled for a strolling audience, with Bunny Christie’s moving stage continually renewing, its dais rising to reveal the bars, clubs and street corners of New York City. This movement creates a distraction from the drama, to some extent, but captures the spirit of Damon Runyon’s original story and the incessant hustle and bustle of his “Runyonland”. It is a marvel to see worlds built before our eyes, accentuated by Paule Constable’s lighting design.
There is the option for some audience members to watch from an external level of the auditorium and having chosen to be seated I sadly felt distanced from the immersive elements. It was clear that the walking audience was experiencing the show differently.
Illuminated signs overhead 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 uncanny resemblance to that of the Ed’s Easy Diner restaurant chain, is a clever method of signage, and the orchestra performs delightfully from a raised cubicle with theatrical light bulbs around it.
The musical’s story and themes feel entirely unreconstructed against this audacious staging, with the book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows and its street vernacular sounding particularly stark. While Oklahoma!, brilliantly rephrased by Daniel Fish! – currently in the West End – transforms both content and form, this production achieves only the latter and is an emphatically traditional depiction of history itself, with period dress (costumes by Deborah Andrews) and over-the-top cartoonish characters. The performances are strong – especially the singing voices – even if there are few points of emotional connection. Wallace delivers an entertaining rendition of Adelaide’s Lament alongside witty duet Sue Me, shared with Adelaide’s gambling boyfriend Nathan Detroit (Daniel Mays). Schoenmaker and Andrew Richardson (as Sky Masterson) imbue I’ve Never Been in Love Before with romance.
There is a potentially dangerous moment in that central romance between Sarah and Sky when, during their night in Havana, he is seductively dragged into a clinch with a man on a dance floor of shirtless male couples and shorts. The suggestion that Sky might be gay creates an electrifying spark of subversion, but it’s an isolated moment, gone in a flash, as if it were a scene of a far more audacious reconception.
Perhaps due to the ever-rebuilding set, the drama itself never quite engages us, although there is a sweet dynamic between Richardson and Schoenmaker, as well as good comedic chemistry between Wallace and Mays. The choreography (by Arlene Phillips with James Cousins) never quite flies, perhaps due to the somewhat cramped size of the sets, but the formal effort at reimagining this show offers much to admire, even if I’ve done it quite a while. distant.
• Guys and Dolls is at the Bridge Theater in London until 2 September.