Guys and Dolls, performed by Guildford School of Acting final-year students at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, continues until 25 April.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
It’s probably sacrilege to say so, but this remarkable student revival of one of the greatest musicals ever written leaves for dead the much-praised Chichester Festival production that rocked up in the West End last year.
You could take this cast wholesale, the 16 speaking parts, the ensemble of 28, the dazzlingly energetic choreography, the eye-catching costumes, the band of eight under MD Tom Turner, and plonk them at the Savoy and Phoenix where it ran for most of 2016 and this Guys and Dolls wouldn’t look as if it was punching above its weight.
What performances director Samuel Wood has coaxed out of these shimmering young talents.
Maybe some of the songs have been better sung by professionals but this production has caught the very essence, the brio of Frank Loesser’s timeless creation quite wonderfully.
From the moment the vibrant opening crowd scene with its mix of sexy dancers and gambling lowlife hits us between the eyes to Nicely-Nicely Johnson’s showstopper of a finale ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat’ this is three hours of pure bliss you never want to end.
If you ever get tired of Loesser’s magical score – what’s not to like about ‘Marry the Man Today’, ‘Luck Be a Lady’, ‘Take Back Your Mink’ or ‘I’ve Never Been in Love Before’ and that’s not even the half of it, they just don’t write musicals with so many great songs any more – you must be getting tired of life itself.
The seamy Runyan-esque underbelly of downtown Manhattan depicted in this tale of crap shoots, gangsters, mission dolls and high rollers is brought hilariously to life in Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows’ book.
The success of the piece stands or falls on the shoulders of Nathan Detroit, the organiser of an illegal crap game but with nowhere and no money to stage it and it is here that Laurie Denman strikes gold.
His Detroit is incredibly funny, helped in no small degree by unbelievable timing, and whatever this actor achieves in the future career, he will have a job topping this performance.
The role of Big Jule, the giant, gun-toting Chicago mobster who brings along his own blank dice to win back his losses by claiming to remember where the numbers used to be, is a gift and Samuel Wyn-Morris makes the absolute most of this dream part.
Kooky nightclub dancer Miss Adelaide’s 14-year wait for the unwilling Detroit to propose leads to her inventing five kids to convince her far-out-of-town mother she’s been leading a happy family life all along gives Mari McGinlay a field day, even if her high-pitched, glue-strength Brooklyn accent sometimes sacrifices clarity for authenticity. But the characterisation is fabulous.
The burgeoning romance between professional gambler Sky Masterson (Evan Sutton) and the strait-laced Mission sister Sarah Brown (a strong-voiced Jessi Elgood) counterpoints the crazy relationship of the other pair on an evening when every part is lovingly re-created.
Dafydd Lansley captures all the droll humour of Harry the Horse and Detroit’s cohorts Nicely-Nicely, Benny Southstreet and Rusty Charlie are played for all they are worth and with admirable teamwork by Jed Berry, Lewis Cornay and Nicholas Nightingale.
Joshua Gannon’s Lt Brannigan is an object lesson in frustration and Megan Ashley lets her hair down as the Mission General whose fierceness melts away as the music hots up.
James Cunningham is clearly too young for the role of Arvide (Sister Brown’s grandfather and mentor in the original) but his gentle ‘More I Cannot Wish You’ still brings a tear to the eye.
Oh yes, and Ana Cardoso’s slinky dance solo in Havana when a squiffy Sarah loosens with the help of some lively cocktails is another moment to treasure.
Nobody’s rocking this boat and it’s all absolutely brilliant. Bravo!