It’s two years since Guys and Dolls was last performed in Manchester. It was at the Palace Theatre and was pretty much exactly what you’d expect if you were familiar with the musical or film version.
The same cannot be said, however, for the current production at the Manchester’s Royal Exchange.
Billed as the UK’s first all-black cast production of the musical, director Michael Buffong has relocated the show a few blocks north of its original setting to up-town Harlem, New York in 1939.
But it’s not just the unique re-setting or casting that makes this new production stand out; every aspect of the show – particularly the choreography by Kendrick ‘H2O’ Sandy, co-founder of hip-hop dance company Boy Blue Entertainment – leaps off the in-the-round, revolving stage.
Director Buffong has said: “Pre-war Harlem was all about the hustle. The creativity of that era was born from a unique collision of talent and circumstance.”
And that’s certainly what this production does – it hustles across the stage, brimming with raw creativity that is accentuated by the cast’s energy and talent.
UNIQUE: Every aspect of the show leaps off the revolving stage
Ashley Zhangazha plays it cool as Sky Masterson, a role made famous by Marlon Brando in the 1955 film, and adding a welcome hint of cheekiness in his note-perfect performance.
While Ray Fearon, as the good-intentioned but often hapless hustler Nathan Detroit, injects the familiar role with a new lease of life, commanding the stage as soon as he sets foot on it.
Abiona Omonua, who plays Sarah Brown, possesses the role as her own, adding a much-needed slice of sass to the Salvation Army sergeant. While Lucy Vandi as Miss Adelaide develops the once old-fashioned female lead into a force of nature.
Anyone familiar with the musical, though, will know that the true show-stopper goes to Nicely-Nicely Johnson, with the song Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat.
Ako Mitchell savours the role, showcasing his tremendous singing voice and having the audience hang off his every note during the spectacular roof-raising rendition.
REVAMPED: The old classic has been turned into something fresh
The gospel-esque number utilises the revolving stage wonderfully, and having the entire cast onstage dancing, singing and acrobatically flinging themselves around transforms the Salvation Army mission in to an exuberant, joyful festival.
The intimate, setting of the Royal Exchange transforms itself seamlessly between the smoky streets of Harlem, to the flamenco-etched night in Havana, and finally to the underground sewers, where Nathan Detroit and his fellow gamblers get to shoot craps.
Though written in 1950, the musical feels as relevant today as ever. It plays on, and plays around with, the various struggles between not only men and women but all the different aspects of society – sinners, gamblers, missionaries, everyone – and all through a highly comedic lens.
And it proves that by making ourselves do things we might otherwise not think of, good can most definitely come of it.
This new revamping of an old classic – a co-production between the Royal Exchange and the Talawa Theatre Company – is an absolute must-see.
*Guys and Dolls is playing at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until Saturday, January 27. You can buy tickets HERE.