The odds are that everyone will have their own favorite moment in Michael Grandage’s loving London revival of “Guys and Dolls,” which looks to resuscitate a Broadway mainstay for today’s generation just as Richard Eyre’s legendary National Theater staging did in 1982 (and again in 1996). But the evening’s most unexpected kick is the dynamic dance musical wrought from a show known principally for its book and score. Auds will go in humming any of a half-dozen cherished Frank Loesser songs and come out knocked sideways by the footwork: The first-act “Havana” number comes close to heaven.
The question isn’t whether “Moulin Rouge” crooner Ewan McGregor, playing the sexiest, sweetest Sky Masterson imaginable, can cut it singing live — though he does quite capably,complete with the occasional head voice that holds the note. Just as crucial is the realization that the boy can move. Whether sweeping up a Cuban native (the impossibly leggy Summer Strallen) during that Havana jaunt or joining his fellow gamblers for an impulsive terpsichorean outpouring on “Luck Be a Lady,” he does his bit to sustain the momentum. And when the steps get too fancy? McGregor’s smart enough to get out of the way.
Grandage has somewhat tilted the axis of “Guys and Dolls,” with the invaluable assist of Tony winner Rob Ashford, here originating a West End production for the first time. There hasn’t been a book musical either side of the Atlantic in recent years this richly danced. The narrative, and Grandage’s handling of it, gently draws affectionate tears, only to be replaced by the ecstasy of witnessing a company so imaginatively drilled that the show’s fabled Runyonland seems perpetually ready to take flight.
In “Havana,” Ashford sets the company on a steamy yet hilarious collision course that brings out the feisty good-time gal in Sister Sarah (Jenna Russell), the missionary who melts under the attention of Sky, a gambler for whom love emerges as the greatest crap shoot of all. “Take Back Your Mink” is reinvented as a bawdy, good-hearted striptease — even if the abundance of flesh begs the question whether Miss Adelaide (Jane Krakowski) owes her longtime cold less to prenuptial woes than to on-the-job overexposure.
Below Times Square’s thickly accented streets (some, as might be expected in London, are a bit overeager), the crapshooters set the pulse racing not once but twice in act two. They do the same above-ground during a “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” that turns a prayer meeting of supposed penitents into a swirl of giddy, reckless motion. Even “Marry the Man Today” ends with a burst of dance for sudden soulmates Adelaide and Sarah, providing the perfect button to a song leading directly to the altar — the very arc traveled by many of the Shakespeare comedies that “Guys and Dolls” in its way resembles.
Classical theater has long understood the power of the hard-won double wedding, which may be why this musical holds such enduring appeal for British directors known principally for plays. What has Grandage carried across from his artistic home, the Donmar, to his first musical helming gig in the commercial sphere? The answer is evident from an initial glimpse of Christopher Oram’s witty set, which offers not the bright, brashly colored New York of Jerry Zaks’ 1992 Broadway revival but a glistening vertical cityscape that pays specific visual homage to the Donmar’s famous (and monochromatic) back wall.
The effect might be thought to dampen a musical of nearly ceaseless exuberance, but not with a gleaming, milky-colored moon on hand to make its own scenic leap from Cuba to Manhattan, shepherding Sky and Sarah toward the romantic destiny due every guy and doll.
Grandage is first and foremost a director of actors, which explains why, for all McGregor’s charisma, the show has a wholly observed feel borne out in a curtain call bereft of solo bows. The smaller roles are all unusually well taken, from Sevan Stephan’s short, squat, very funny Big Jule (of the “no-spot” dice) to Niall Buggy’s Arvide Abernathy, who scores with a delicate “More I Cannot Wish You.” Martyn Ellis and Cory English make a supremely mirthful double act as Nicely Nicely Johnson and Benny Southstreet, with Ellis drawing roars for a “Rockin’ the Boat” that, true to the spirit of the production, doesn’t stop the flow to sell repeated encores.
Among the leads, the one oddity is the wide-eyed Nathan Detroit of legit veteran Douglas Hodge, a Donmar alum whose reluctant (if well-sung) groom is out of a cartoon, the facial mugging with it.
Krakowski, by contrast, doesn’t overdo Adelaide’s nasality or reach for ready shtick. Though she may not have quite the chops that set Faith Prince apart, the Broadway visitor brings definite heat to the Hot Box, along with an unyielding ardor that is, finally, very touching.
All McGregor has to do, it seems, is grin, and the entire house swoons, which makes Russell’s clarion-voiced, sensitively acted Sarah doubly commendable. (After “I’ll Know,” it’s poignantly clear from her expression that Sarah isn’t at all sure about the ways of Eros.) McGregor’s tenor, in turn, may have its metallic moments, but thesp delivers where it counts, Sky’s emerging heart at one with a production that traffics not in glitz but truth. And then, when it starts dancing, whisks you away with it.