Review: Guys and Dolls (Sheffield Theatres)

Runyon, Loesser, Swerling and Burrows’ 1950s musical comes to Sheffield this Christmas

TJ Lloyd and the company of Guys and Dolls
TJ Lloyd and the company of Guys and Dolls
© Johan Persson

Nearly 70 years after its first performance, Guys and Dolls is still a miracle of a show. It helped initially to have two men of genius involved, both steeped in a poeticised version of the language of the streets. The incomparable Damon Runyon – chronicler of the lives of gamblers and gangsters, sharpers and boosters on Broadway – was dead by the time it was written, but Frank Loesser recreated his idiom perfectly in this adaptation of The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown with bits of other Runyon stories.

Loesser was originally a lyricist for other Broadway composers and had become a master of the art, capable of building a lyric on the phrase, "The oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York" or offsetting Miss Adelaide's tempests of anger with Nathan Detroit's off-hand New York Jewishisms in "Sue Me". That is not to underestimate Loesser's skill as a composer: 20 or so musical numbers without a dud, great tunes that somehow inhabit the world of Runyon's fantasy Broadway – even the less well known songs, the reflective "My Time of Day" for instance, or Arvide Abernathy's gently protective "More I Cannot Wish You".

Rather neglected in praise of Guys and Dolls is the work of two Broadway/Hollywood veterans, Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, who crafted a superbly engineered book to form the bridge between Runyon and Loesser, full of wit, sentiment, wisecracks, wordplay and horseplay.

So there it is, a soft-centred fable about hard-bitten tough guys that is pretty much perfect. It makes it easy for a director who knows what to do. All that's needed is to do it brilliantly – and that's what Robert Hastie does at Sheffield Crucible.

Skeletons of tenements dominate Janet Bird's set – more structures come and go on a double revolve – and at the opening a solitary violinist, Andra Vornicu, is picked out on the upper level playing the yearningly beautiful opening of "I'll Know" before a rotund bespectacled figure appears, making notes on a pad. Runyon researching his story, maybe? No, it's Nicely Nicely Johnson with his race card. Other seedy denizens of Broadway put in an appearance, a drunken Santa wanders through the action, the set forms into Mindy's restaurant and, by the time the opening "Fugue for Tinhorns" ("I've got a horse right here") breaks in with its conversational precision, we know the next three hours are going to be special.

The plot revolves around two couples – in love with each other, but apparently ill-assorted. Detroit, he of the oldest established crap game, has been engaged to Miss Adelaide, the featured act at the Hot Box, for 14 years and has so far avoided matrimony. Natalie Casey's Adelaide is a delight, guying her show numbers just enough, snuffling her way through "Adelaide's Lament" and exploding and forgiving with equal conviction. Martin Marquez is, less flamboyantly, equally on the button as Nathan, as is Kadiff Kirwan, the over-the-top gambler Sky Masterson, with a nice line in faux innocence and a relaxed way with a song. As Sarah Brown of the Save a Soul Mission, Alex Young fields an operatic voice and a stern manner which comes apart delightfully in her jaunt to Havana with Sky.

A cast of 20-plus makes the most of Matt Flint's inventive choreography and creates an appealing gallery of saints and sinners. T J Lloyd's innocently smiling Nicely Nicely forms a neat double act with Adrian Hansel's cool Benny Southstreet and brings the house down with his great set piece, "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat", a major production number in the hands of Hastie and Flint. Dawn Hope's General Cartwright radiates good will, Garry Robson is kindness itself as Arvide Abernathy and Dafydd Emyr is cavernously monosyllabic as Big Jule – just as it all should be.

A final word for the terrific 14-piece band. Musical director Will Stuart's arrangements take full advantage of the presence of jazz and big band stars such as Ryan Quigley and Jay Craig in the line-up, and pack a real punch without losing touch with the wistfulness that underlies so much of the humour and razzamatazz.