A WINNING ROLL OF THE DICE FOR CHICHESTER
There is a sort of generosity, an overflowing vigour, when Chichester’s great three-sided arena does the classic musicals. They can’t be safely confined in a proscenium frame but have to pour out in three directions, sharpening the need for story and character, spilling the cast sometimes among us, bursting into 3D choreography with dazzling movement and gorgeous compositions of colour and piled-up shape. And of all the great musicals, none offers more of everything than Frank Loesser’s exuberant 1950 fairytale of gamblers, showgirls and tambourine-banging missionaries out to convert them.
The book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows drew on Damon Runyon’s world: a sunny, larky, almost Wodehousian interpretation of New York lowlife. And here, beneath a great illuminated arc of nostalgic advertising posters – pure Disney, in a good way – Gordon Greenberg’s production sings and soars unfettered. The choreography – acrobatic to the point of insanity – is by Carlos Acosta, no less, supported by Andrew Wright: the gamblers in their suits and ties leapfrog, hurtle, somersault in a melée of precise chaos. “Siddown you’re rocking the boat” is phenomenal, and the crap-shooting dance down the sewers almost equally astonishing. As for the women, Anabel Kutay leads a Havana dance which becomes still wilder as the degenerating brawl incorporates Clare Foster’s disinhibited missionary Sergeant Sarah, and Sophie Thompson’s Miss Adelaide in the Hot Box club is backed by plenty of slyly witty, naffly innocent ensemble hoofing in gingham corsetry or strippable mink stoles.
When the cast are in motion there is always something to amaze: while Peter McKintosh’s overarching design of ads (Oreo! Cadillac! Camel!) is sometimes reflected in the shiny floor until the cast seem to be floating in a circular mirage of light and colour. And they themselves – perfect right down to the men’s two-tone co-respondent shoes and snazzy socks – form patterns rarely less than perfect.
But enough about the look of the thing. Its wit is more the point: the spoken dialogue (of which there is more than many musicals) is sharp and funny, giving scope for subtleties of character. Jamie Parker, chiselled and cool, lets the character of Sky Masterson breathe and genuinely change as he falls in love with Sarah; Peter Polycarpou’s harassed Nathan Detroit has a nice unwilling charm, his confreres (especially Harry Morrison as Nicely Nicely and dour, towering Nic Greenshields as Big Jule) each stand out distinct. Neil McCaul as Abernethy the minister creates in his small moments something genuinely lovable and precious. And Greenberg’s detail never misses a passing joke, not least when he makes momentarily solid the women’s dreams of a ruralized Nathan and domesticated Sky. It takes only seconds, that, but adds to the sum of happiness; so does the real steam from the New York pavement gratings and the momentary appearance (twice) of a wobbly nun on a bicycle with a collecting-bucket.
Hard to pick out stars, but the obvious, irresistible, fabulously broad performance is Sophie Thompson’s as Miss Adelaide. Who could resist that high Bronx twang swooping down to a dismayed baritone, her barmy dancing, or that angular anxiety – both hilarious and heartbreaking – about the ever-vanishing wedding day resolved in a final sisterly duet with Sergeant Sarah? Not me.