Guys & Dolls

Guys & Dolls is a renowned theatrical oxymoron, depicting the menacing underworld of gambling gangsters via the melodic and cheerful medium of golden-age musical theatre. Unlike previous shows put on by the Edinburgh University Footlights (such as last year’s dynamic and unforgettable Rent or 2014’s vibrant Scottish premier of Lin Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights), Guys & Dolls’s relative lack of plot and character means any successful production must deliver spectacle and charm by the bucketload. While offering spirited fun and some standout performances, this Footlights production of Guys & Dolls is unfortunately slightly lacking in both.

The chorus numbers deserve praise for their dancing, which is truly engaging, particularly in the Havana scenes, although their vocals are occasionally drowned out by the music.

Director Lucy Evans effectively emphasises the musical’s odd dichotomy by moving the setting to depression-era 1930s while making the orchestra visible on stage – a constant reminder of the show’s fictionality. The time and place are well-established: the gorgeous costumes by Rose McCormack and Laura Loszak deserve particular plaudits while the cleverly-designed set (which transforms from nightclub to sewer to New York street) is well-utilised and likely become smoother during the run.

But what about spectacle and charm? Female leads Mae Hearans and Ellie Millar embody both these qualities: Hearans, as the put-upon fiancée of gambler Nathan Detroit, has true star-quality, combining note-perfect singing with deft comic timing while infusing the role with both humanity and pathos. Millar, as Salvation Army Sargeant Sarah Brown – the unknowing subject of a bet between Nathan and fellow gambler Sky Masterson – is similarly impressive, expertly straddling the different facets of her character. She also has genuinely sweet chemistry with Oliver Barker as love interest, Sky. Nevertheless Barker and fellow male lead Tom Whiston are not as vocally proficient or as confident as their female counterparts.

The chorus numbers deserve praise for their dancing, which is truly engaging, particularly in the Havana scenes, although their vocals are occasionally drowned out by the music. Sound is a recurring problem; whether its a difficulty with accents, nerves or both, the dialogue is often hard to understand. The result is that key plot points, such as the bet between Sky and Nathan, could be somewhat unclear to those unfamiliar with the story.

There are some fun twists to the traditional tale: Lila Pitcher pulls off the role of the gender-switched Chicago gangster Big Jule with plenty of humour, adding a 21st century twist to this firmly 20th century story. In fact, Pitcher is arguably a more convincing gangster than her male associates, Adam Makepeace (Nicely Nicely Johnson) and Aidan Bushnell (Benny Southstreet). Happily, Makepeace blossoms in his big number, Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat, a standout of the show’s score which he belts out with skill and glee.

All in all, Footlights’ Guys & Dolls makes for a fun and spirited production. An entertaining diversion, but it lacks the wow-factor and the slickness of last year’s show. 

Reviews by Francesca Street

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The Blurb

Following last season’s sell-out success, The Edinburgh University Footlights return in 2016 with Frank Loesser’s classic: Guys & Dolls. This production will highlight the stark contrast between the grittiness of Damon Runyon’s stories and the heightened reality of the musical theatre genre, thereby staying true to both Loesser’s beautiful musical and to the situations of Runyon’s characters in 1930s New York.