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January 19, 2024
Immersive Theatre in London
Guys & Dolls
Photo by Manuel Harlan

How does a musical that is quintessentially New York distinguish itself in London? Especially when it is a classic show that premiered in 1950. How can it be mounted to make it unique and appealing?

The answer is simple: Immersion theater. Allow hundreds of the audience to be on the stage floor and get involved.

Recently Here Lies Love, the musical about Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos attracted hundreds of theatergoers willing to stand for the entire 90 minute production, cheering, moving about and interacting with the performers. They were more than spectators; they were participating. In some instances, they even made contact with the performers.

It worked, producing an energetic, exhilarating experience.

Using that same approach at The Bridge Theatre, director Nicholas Hytner has tackled a revival of the classic show, Guys & Dolls with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows
Based upon two stories by Damon Runyon, the musical opened in 1950, ran for 1,200 performances and won the Tony Award for Best Musical.
The ‘standees’ were mostly younger people who remained on their feet for the entire 2 ½ hours with a brief interval. Many of them held drinks as they watched. When we entered the theater, there was no hint of how the stage would change. In fact, it looked like a flat gymnasium floor. Later sections began to rise, connect and fall. Reconfigure. Imagine a Transformer, bending and twisting. Choreographer Arlene Phillips with James Cousins had to stage dancers on separate platforms.

On the floor surrounding the moving stage was one of the hardest working stage crews on either side of the Atlantic. Dressed as police, they ushered the audience, moving people about and keeping them out of harm’s way. Also synchronized was the lighting which had to know where and when and who to follow. ((Set designer Bunny Christie and lighting designer Paule Constable.) The show had synchronicity of stage, performers and lighting and miraculously it all worked together- Kudos!

This musical has long been one of my favorites, although the humor, especially from Nathan Detroit, the gambler responsible for the longest running crap game in New York, is often lame and cringeworthy. The show is somewhat dated, especially since gambling has become commonplace and even accessible on our phones. Yet the musical is sweet and enjoyable.

Much of the music remains delightful. Songs like “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” “A Bushel and a Peck,” “Luck Be A Lady” and others are classic.
Like many older musicals, the show has a double love story: a romantic one and a comic one. Nathan Detroit (played by a rubbery Daniel Mays) has been engaged to Miss Adelaide (the terrific Marisha Wallace) for 14 years. Mays is constantly moving and twitching, almost as if he’s ‘got ants in his pants” and is ready to slip away quickly if the cops show up. Mays gets to deliver some of the corniest lines in the play but he’s endearing and we understand why Miss Adelaide stays engaged to him for years, despite his reluctance to marry. Wallace is feisty and energetic and a standout. She is terrific and worth the price of admission alone.

The second pair of lovers consists of Sara Brown (Celinde Schoenmaker), one of the missionaries from Save-A Soul Mission and Sky Masterson, an inveterate gambler. Nathan Detroit needs money to rent the Baltimore Garage for his floating crap game, so he bets Sky that he can’t take Sara to Cuba with him. Sara is upright, prim and proper and not the type to be attracted to Sky. And of course, the two go to Cuba. Schoenmaker gets to be the only character who changes, first straight-laced but then fueled by alcohol, she changes dramatically, becoming carefree. Predictably, she and Sky ( understudy Jack Butterworth) fall in love.

The fun couple is Adelaide and Detroit. Their storyline is light and funny and the ending is predictable, but it works because the characters, even the so-called bad characters, are cartoonish and fun (not your frightening Soprano thugs.) We want a happy ending and we get one with loads of wonderful music.

Personally I wouldn’t want to be standing for the show. I was there to watch it, not be part of it. The audience was at least 7 across and I pitied some of the shorter people in the back. The production reminded me of a rock concert where you paid for your ticket but when several other fans stood to sing and cheer the whole time, you did too because you couldn’t see otherwise.

Like the other shows I saw in London I wondered if this one would make it in a move to Broadway. I can’t envisage the Wednesday matinee ladies groups opting to stand and move around with the show. Older audiences will recall and love the familiar wonderful music but most don’t go to theater to participate: they go to be entertained. To appeal to the younger audiences and introduce them to Loesser’s wonderful music, the show will have to accommodate them.

Bridge Theatre
3 Potters Flds Pk,
London SE1 2SG, United Kingdom

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Written by: Elyse Trevers
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