How ‘Guys and Dolls’ at the Bridge Theatre reinvents the classic musical

The cast of Nicholas Hytner’s acclaimed production of the iconic show shares how a fresh take on the story and the songs leads to musical theatre magic.

Suzy Evans
Suzy Evans

“Anyone who thinks a dumb blonde is not smart is pretty dumb,” Marisha Wallace says with a laugh. There’s a knowing twinkle in her eye as she talks about her portrayal of the eternally betrothed nightclub singer Adelaide in Guys and Dolls at the Bridge Theatre.

Wallace’s reclamation and reinvention of the typically stereotyped ditz in the classic musical is a tribute to a production that turns the classic’s gender narrative on its head. Adelaide is no longer a shrinking violet; she’s a woman with a plan. After all, as the title song goes, “a guy’s only doing it for some doll.”

“We knew going into Guys and Dolls that there was a gender politics issue,” Wallace continues. “Oh, the dolls are usually ditzy or dumb or just there as props. But in this version, the women know what's going on. Most dumb blondes are actually really smart.”

Director Nicholas Hytner’s immersive production has become the singular theatrical event of the year, transporting audiences to 1930s New York City through Bunny Christie’s modular and moving set as a standing audience migrates around the pieces.

The classic story centres on two couples: gambler Nathan Detroit and his fiancee of 14 years Adelaide, and the suave Sky Masterson, who accepts a bet from Nathan to take Sarah Brown, the local mission leader, to Cuba. Replete with some of musical theatre’s most classic anthems – including “Adelaide’s Lament,” “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” “Luck Be a Lady,” and “Marry the Man Today” – it’s pure musical theatre paradise for a modern audience.

“Our Sarah is going to have a little bit more balls to her, basically,” Celinde Schoenmaker, who plays the pious character, says of Hytner’s vision. “We found a lovely balance where we are playing the characters a bit stronger, especially the women, but we still respect the story. We haven't changed anything – just added a bit more strength.”

One of the main changes was the setting of Adelaide and Sarah’s duet, “Marry the Man Today,” a seemingly dated ode to matrimony. Only in this version the women are in a bar. Plotting.

“I mean, it's the worst advice to marry the man today and change his ways tomorrow,” Schoenmaker says. “That can only be said in a bar with a drink.”

“They think they got us but we actually got them,” Wallace adds. “Because, in reality, that's what it really is anyway.”

The men in this production were happy to be “got,” especially since both Owain Arthur and Andrew Richardson had never seen a production of the show before, nor had they performed in a musical. In fact, Guys and Dolls marks Richardson’s professional theatrical debut.

Richardson moved back home to the UK from the U.S. after the pandemic, and told his agency that he wanted to try theatre – but not musicals. However, when the audition came up for this show, he decided to take matters into his own hands and perform a jazz version of numbers. Something about what he did clicked.

“I grew up listening to Sinatra and Chet Baker sing these songs,” he says. “There's something so wonderful about hearing these songs that my grandfather played for me, and to attach them to a narrative was really new to me.”

Arthur joined the cast over the summer as the boisterous and loveable gangster Nathan Detroit, and this show marks his first time onstage in almost 10 years since One Man, Two Guvnors. He’s been spending his time on the screen, most recently on The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

Arthur says he’s glad he hasn’t seen the show before because “it means my instincts are forced on Nathan. I'm doing it from my head instead of somebody else's head.”

“With Nathan and Adelaide's relationship,” he continues, “what's fantastic is we've got Marisha Wallace absolutely busting her gut every night and totally in control of that relationship. The fact that they have been engaged for 14 years is not just Nathan's decision, it's also Adelaide’s. Their lustrous passionate relationship is quite modern in that we don't get married as often these days.”

Wallace has been absolutely loving finding new chemistry onstage with Arthur in the show. “I wake up every day and go: I can't believe this is my life. I've been doing this almost 20 years now and this has definitely been a highlight of my career,” she says. “I can't believe it because I turned it down first!”

Schoenmaker and Richardson are also enjoying redeveloping their characters' chemistry. “He gave me much room to be bigger as Sarah, to have a little bit more agency,” Schoenmaker says. “I have always loved the arc of the role, but the fact that they let me put so much of my DNA on her was a real gift.”

Cedric Neal, who plays Nicely-Nicely Johnson, also brought himself to the role of the reformed gangster who brings the house down with the iconic 11 o’clock number “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.”

“On the first day of rehearsal, [musical supervisor] Tom Brady said, ‘We know who we hired, we know what you do,” Neal says. “So to do Cedric while telling the story – that kind of liberty, that kind of freedom in song and storytelling is what I've been waiting my entire career for. I relish that moment every night.”

After the show, the cast enjoys mingling with audience members and friends, and guests (including this reporter) continually remark on how different and modern this production is. Richardson, for one, would like to know what’s so different about it.

“I would love to see another production of this just to understand,” he says. “In my mind, I’m like, how can you do it differently?”

Tickets to Guys and Dolls are available on London Theatre. Book Guys and Dolls tickets today.

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