"I got the horse right here" is the flimflam lyric that opens Frank Loesser's immortal Guys and Dolls, now in previews at London's intimate, yet grand, Savoy Theatre. The rotund, baby-faced Nicely-Nicely Johnson, nicely portrayed by the uproarious Gavin Spokes, is sizing us up as potential dupes while having his shoes shined (for five cents, this being Broadway in 1950.) "Fugue for Tinhorns" turns into a virtuosic counterpoint with fellow racketeers, the euphonically named Benny Southstreet and Rusty Charlie, and we're off to the races with this surefire hit.
Peopled by petty gangsters, crooked cops, and chorus girls -- based on real life denizens of the Broadway underworld, whose escapades were chronicled by Damon Runyon -- the seedy fantasy world of Runyonland possesses the same addictive charm as Agatha Christie's quaintly sinister English villages, thanks to the vividness with which the characters are drawn, and the veins of truth that speckle the farce.
There are no one-percenters in Runyonland, only fast-talkers and faster-talkers, living by their wits and dimwits, and looking for Lady Luck around every corner.
Gambling and romance are both crapshoots, proclaim Runyon and crackerjack bookwriters Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows. Will harried huckster Nathan Detroit finally seal the deal with the long-suffering showgirl Miss Adelaide? Will the uptight missionary Sarah Brown fall for the slick Sky Masterson? Perhaps... provided they can evade the cops, placate Chicago mobsters and Mission bosses, extricate themselves from whoppers, and fly to Havana and back in time for the next installment of "the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York."
The dialogue snaps and crackles with no sell-by date in sight. Ballet to the People's favorite line: "Pleasant as a doll can be, she must always take second place to aces back-to-back" - that's inveterate gambler Sky explaining why he always "travels light," i.e., refuses to get hitched.
Electric dance numbers by a team of choreographers headed by Andrew Wright and the Royal Ballet's beloved Carlos Acosta include the steamy "Havana" and mock-spiritual "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat." All superbly framed by a streamlined set, designed by Peter McKintosh, in the form of an arc, composed of fragments of adverts.
Gareth Valentine's cheeky arrangements of Loesser are buoyed by a spiffing brass section, with slatherings of music hall and a hilarious, unexpected salute to the four baby swans from Swan Lake in the midst of the testosterone-fueled "Luck Be a Lady." Brilliant lighting throughout, by Tim Mitchell, hit an apogee in this scene, set in an underground sewer, with light filtering through street grates above, and steam hissing from buried pipes.
Most of the songs canter along at an uncommonly fast clip ("I'll know when my love comes along" practically gallops) but Loesser was a genius, his music sounds terrific at any velocity. The songs are woven seamlessly into the dialogue at those points when feelings start getting too complicated for mere spoken words. Some of the lyrics are sheer poetry. Take Sky's admission that:
My time of day is the dark time
A couple of deals before dawn
When the street belongs to the cop
And the janitor with the mop
And the grocery clerks are all gone.
When the smell of the rain-washed pavement
Comes up clean and fresh and cold
And the streetlamp light
Fills the gutter with gold...
Love songs span the lyrical ("I've never been in love before") to the downright hysterical ("Sue me / sue me / shoot bullets through me / I love you") and the unusual "More I cannot wish you" -- the latter touchingly sung by Neil McCaul in the role of Sarah's grandfather, another stalwart of the Save-a-Soul Mission, who urges Sarah to give her heart to the lawless Sky.
The final showstopper, "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat," unites buttoned-down missionaries and dissolute crapshooters. At the intersection of gospel and jazz, scat happens. The lyrics warn us not to rock the boat, but the freewheeling music threatens to rock the roof right off the Mission hall. Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Spoke) heroically shepherds the flock of sinners and saviors, with impressive assist from the Mission's redoubtable General Matilda B. Cartwright (Lorna Gayle.)
Vocal stylings are, for the most part in this production, top-drawer. David Haig as Nathan pulls off some adventurous riffs -- notably in his complaint about the vanishing of suitable venues for his illegal crap games, which finishes off with the deathless lyric "and things being what they are/ the back of the police station is out."
The silky baritone of Jamie Parker as Sky pours like smooth gin, his voice reminiscent of Sinatra, his good looks reminiscent of the young Paul Newman. (Sinatra wanted to play Sky in the film version but was relegated to the role of Nathan by Sam Goldwyn, who cast the hunky but vocally challenged Marlon Brando as Sky.)
Sky and Nathan are typically cast as contemporaries -- both world-weary but still flaunting the cruel insouciance of youth, and nimble enough to escape a policeman in hot pursuit. This production, however, cast a Nathan who looks old enough to be Sky's father, more genial, less gritty than your average Broadway gangster. The pairing of Nathan and Sky is as crucial as the romantic twosomes and, given the apparent age gap, Haig and Parker inevitably lack a certain chemistry.
As Nathan's love interest, Miss Adelaide, the archly funny Sophie Thompson conveys a rickety, slightly faded glamour, her hips a mite arthritic -- after all, she's been engaged to the hapless Nathan for 14 years, and the profession of chorus girl takes a toll. Thompson is a dead ringer for Lucille Ball, with superb comic timing and a voice that slides effortlessly from shrill notes to husky depths. Her philosophic delivery of "Adelaide's Lament" won rueful laughs at Saturday's matinee, as many in the audience no doubt share her psychosomatic symptoms. Refusing to identify herself, or any female, as the interlocutor, Adelaide refers to "a person" (in the vernacular, "a poyson") condemned to permanent fiancée status, whose fear of growing old alone induces various upper respiratory complaints.
But by no means is Adelaide meant to be over the hill, and Thompson brings a delightful edge to the role.
The lovely Siubhan Harrison as Sarah is well matched with Parker in the looks department. Her voice in the lower registers is lush and poignant, but her high notes in "If I Were a Bell" were a little strained, and her comedic flair could not match Thompson's in their dizzy duet, the hopeful but cynical "Marry the Man Today."
This production proved a knockout at the Chichester Festival Theatre, directed by Gordon Greenberg, and will likely do the same when it officially opens on January 6th, 2016, at the Savoy Theatre in London.