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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 18th June 2005

Guys and Dolls

I was in a troubled mood when I sat down to watch Guys and Dolls and, alas, it didn't do much to raise my spirits. Before I started reviewing plays four years ago, I had no time for musicals. I have a tin ear for music and almost no visual sense and the only pleasure I derived from going to the theatre was literary. For me, the characters and the plot were the thing and any musical interludes were an irritating distraction. But seeing Trevor Nunn's production of South Pacific changed all that. For the first time, I experienced the ecstasy that a really good musical can produce. During Nellie's showstopper--'I'm Gonna Wash that Man right outa My Hair'--I had a giddy, almost floating sensation. It was pure, exhilarating joy, not dissimilar to a crack high, and I instantly became addicted. Now, when I go to a musical, I'm hoping to re-experience that high.

The first thing that struck me about Guys and Dolls was how small and hidebound the stage looked--and I was sitting in the stalls quite near the front. From the back of the Upper Circle, it must be the size of a postage stamp. It was a pitiful sight compared to the grand expanse of the Olivier, the largest stage at the National. Perhaps as a result of this limitation, the director Michael Grandage has created a very static, immobile production, with the actors taking turns to step in and out of the little box that forms the stage. There's none of the fluidity that Trevor Nunn brought to South Pacific, not to mention Oklahoma and My Fair Lady. (I didn't much care for Anything Goes.) "Pedestrian" is too strong a word to describe this production, but it's workmanlike, uninspired. It does the business, but it's not show business. The only time it really takes flight is when Grandage steps aside and lets Rob Ashford, the choreographer, do his stuff. Easily the best sequences are the three big production numbers: 'Havana', 'Luck Be a Lady' and 'Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat'.

Grandage isn't entirely to blame. He's been saddled with a star in the form of Ewan McGregor who simply isn't cut out to play the lead in a big, West End musical. In the role of Sky Masterson, a steely-nerved high roller, he seems no more threatening than he does as Obi Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels. He's romantic and debonair where he should be dangerous and sexy--not so much Milk Tray Man as the Milky Bar Kid. (I'm duty bound to report that my wife, who was sitting next to me, thought McGregor was completely captivating.) Couldn't the divine Alex Jennings have been cast instead? He was so good as Henry Higgins after he replaced Jonathan Price in Nunn's production of My Fair Lady.

The women, too, are disappointing. Jane Krakowski's attempts to sex it up as Miss Adelaide reminded me of her pitiful efforts to do the same in the American legal series Ally McBeal, which at one stage I was pretty devoted too. In McBeal, she was required to be a bit of a wallflower and she did it so convincingly that I now can't see her as anything else. Jenna Russell as Sarah Brown gives a more subtle performance, but she's so good at being gawky, particularly in the big production numbers, that she has zero sex appeal. Why Sky Masterson would give up his gambling ways to win the heart of this blue stocking is a mystery.

With so little to transport me on stage, I couldn't help focussing on the plot and even though Guys and Dolls has an unusually strong book by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling it isn't capable of withstanding much scrutiny. The entire first half pivots around Nathan Detroit's efforts to find a suitable venue to stage an illegal crap game, which is surely a bit implausible. I can imagine small-time racketeers like Detroit having any number of problems in the New York of the time--corrupt cops, rival gangsters, ambitious lieutenants--but finding a place to gamble can't have been one of them. Indeed, Burrows and Swerling acknowledge this when, as if by magic, the action in the second half shifts to the sewers beneath New York City where Detroit and his associates have decided to continue their game. (Great set by Christopher Oram here, by the way, much the best one of the night.) Why couldn't they have simply gone down to the sewers in the first place and avoided all the shenanigans of the previous 90 minutes?

As I say, I had a lot of things on my mind when I entered the theatre, so perhaps I was in a particularly unreceptive state. Judging from the reaction of the first night audience, who were up on their hind legs almost immediately, I certainly felt like a lone curmudgeon. But the test of a great musical is that it can lift your spirits however low you're feeling and this production of Guys and Dolls just didn't do that. I'd like to see it again before passing final judgment, but it already appears to be sold out until Christmas, so I'm afraid this verdict will have to stand.

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