Review: Guys and Dolls at Milton Keynes Theatre

Guys and Dolls
Guys and Dolls

I was just eight years old when Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando hit the big screen in Guys and Dolls, a story about a pair of New York gamblers, one hoping to raise $1,000 to host a craps game and the other being bet that he couldn’t get a date with a pretty Salvationist missionary.

The 1955 musical film – which is set the prohibition time of the mid-1930s and features the underworld of gangsters and gambling – has somehow remained a theatrical favourite, although personally I felt that it should have stayed in that era!

It’s true that Guys and Dolls brought plenty of Broadway glitz, glamour and razzamatazz to Milton Keynes last night, but it’s not one of the theatre’s more enjoyable offerings.

Ex-Coronation Street actor Richard Fleeshman heads the cast as dastardly gambler Obadiah ‘Sky’ Masterson (Brando’s original part) who will bet on virtually anything. However he does somehow arrange a date with the virtuous ‘plain-Jane’ Sarah Brown (played by Anna O’Byrne) at the Save-A-Soul Mission before jetting her off to Cuba’s capital Havana for the day.

Down-on-his-luck gambler Nathan Detroit (played by Maxwell Cauldfield) is the one who sets Masterson the dating challenge in the hope of winning the $1,000 bet. However he’s also a marriage dodger having been engaged to Hot Box Club dancer Miss Alelaide (Louise Dearman) for the past 14 years!

Fleeshman’s portrayal as the dashing Masterson is believable and there were certainly a few females in the audience who could easily have fallen for him. With his debonair appearance and superb vocals – especially in I’ve Never Been In Love Before along with Miss Dearman – he could certainly hit the right notes.

Meanwhile Cauldfield was equally adept and while he’s no Frank Sinatra, he wan’t a bad substitute although it was Miss Adelaide as Nathan Detroit’s girlfriend who really warmed to the audience.

Leading the show’s impressive dance ensemble in A Bushel and a Peck at the Hot Box Club and then shining brightly in Take Back Your Mink at the start of Act Two, Louise Dearman – who has also starred in Wicked and Evita – then displayed a softer side as well as being the confident ‘girl about town’ who was desperate to marry her long-time beau.

However the highlight for me was the performance of Jack Edwards as wide boy Nicely-Nicely Johnson and his lead vocal in colourful Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat… incidentally it’s a song I’ve never really liked! Together with his sidekick Benny Southstreet (played by Mark Sangster), the pair easily received the biggest cheer at the final curtain.

Anna O’Byrne plays straight-laced missionary Sarah Brown who quickly loses her inhibitions following a few Cuban cocktails laced with Bacardi rum. I also liked Sarah’s salvationist grandfather Arvide Abernathy played by Peter Harding who sounded and looked more than a little like Private Frazer, the Scottish undertaker in Dad’s Army who was played by the late, great John Laurie!

Also worthy of mention are Craig Pinder as crafty gangster Harry the Horse and giant actor Cameron Johnson who was perfectly cast as Chicago dice player, Big Jule.

Guys and Dolls has around 20 musical numbers all penned by Frank Loesser yet only a couple managed to set my feet tapping. Most of the characters are based on the writings of Damon Runynon, although it was Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows’ book that gave the show the storyline which is rather dated and predictable.

However Guys and Dolls’ acrobatic and energetic dancers certainly deserve special praise, especially in the Luck Be Lady Tonight number, their boundless energy really shining through. All the dance routines are well choreographed by Cuban ballet star Carlos Acosta and Andrew Wright but it was those New York accents which really irked. The dialogue is often too wordy even though there are some comedic moments and a couple of good one-liners.

There’s no doubt that under the direction of Gordon Greenberg, Guys and Dolls is pretty slick while Peter McKintosh’s clever yet uncluttered set uses neon-lit 1930s-style advertising hoardings as a backdrop while scene changes and props are handled by the cast.

As for the costumes, they really were excellent as was the orchestration under musical director Andy Massey and his deputy Mike Steele, but I still feel this two hour 45 minute former Broadway smash (which has a 20 minute interval), is now past its best and should be consigned to history.

Guy and Dolls plays Milton Keynes until this coming Saturday (18 June) each evening at 7.30pm while there are matinees on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at 2.30pm. Tickets are available from the Box Office, by calling 0844 871 7652 or by visiting www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes.