by Rachel Beaumont

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Move over Marlon: Guys and Dolls at the Royal Exchange

Guys and Dolls
Tarawa Theatre Company
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
Banquette (unreserved), £5
2 December 2017
Exchange page

A stage production of Guys and Dolls operates in the wake of a great film, and those are unenviable waters. They’re further muddied by the fact that, as you may have noticed, I struggle in live performance to separate out what is enjoyable about musical theatre from what I enjoy about opera. Enamoured of Marlon Brando and the operatic singing voice as I am, my enjoyment of Tarawa’s Guys and Dolls was somewhat checked – but that’s my problem, not theirs.

The show is as slick as you could like, a fact doubly impressive given this was the first preview. The cast is strong throughout, the performance of each principal and ensemble member memorably and energetically characterized. Of the leads I enjoyed Ashley Zhangazha as Sky Masterson the most for the complete package of musicianship and radiant likeableness, but that shouldn’t obscure the strength of the whole, in conjunction with decent playing from the band. They were sadly invisible, but this was the only downside to Soutra Gilmour’s set, otherwise sensitively designed for the in-the-round space of the Exchange.

The relocation of the action to Harlem offers a good rationale, if anyone felt one was needed, to have an all-black cast, but otherwise has no impact on the contour of the story that I could discern. Only my brother Alan was concerned that the setting risked perpetuating the ‘craps = African dice’ racist stereotype – but I think director Michael Buffong was right to assume your average audience member is not as deeply read on American literature as Alan, if the thought even crossed his mind at all. For everyone else, this was an unadulterated chance to enjoy a highly slick production of a good musical (if you didn’t mind it not being an opera).

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