As the 25-strong band, hidden away in a subterranean vault adjacent to the acting arena, launches into the overture, the company takes the stage against a background of giant-sized playing cards and huge dice, suggesting the interior of the Hot-Box Club, a New York gambling den. A few of the characters - a prim Salvation Army mission and an ineffective policeman (a brusque but perennially frustrated Charlie Tyrer) will prove to move in regular rhythm while the majority lurch to their own distinctive, often eccentric beat. These are the citizens of Runyonland - that part of Broadway inhabited by the class of hucksters, shysters and grifters of Damon Runyon's short stories of the 1930s and 40s - with names like Brandy-Bottle Bateslocal heavy Big, Harry the Horse and Hot-Box Mimi.
Into their midst stomps the Mission Band, led by the pious Miss Sarah Brown (Gemma Lowcock) who seeks to save sinners by daylight when she should be looking by night. At least, that's the advice given her by 'Sky' Masterson (Eoghan McNelis), so named for the limit he places on his gaming. His mission, born of course of a reckless bet, is to woo and sweep away to Havana, Cuba the incorruptible mission dame, a mission ultimately costing Masterson his heart and Nathan his dishonest living, but saving their souls.
I won't dwell further on the storyline, in part given that its themes are essentially those of good versus evil, love versus let-downs and, emphasized here, the random consequences of Lady Luck, personified by the eponymous acrobat-dancer (a rubber-limbed, spangly-suited Lena Schienwild) who introduces many of the scenes and comments obliquely on the action. But primarily because maximum space cries out to be devoted to the stunning quality of this production.
I didn't know what or whom to admire most. The seating-set up has part of the audience at aperitif tables verging onto the playing space, now Hot-Box hard-scrabblers, now witnesses to the tussle between the Sally Army and its sinful clients. The set grew organically as 2D clubs and hearts were turned into 3D pyramids, and there was a wonderfully ingenious effect in the famous Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat sequence where these same pyramids collapsed into the form of a rowing boat. The band, under the direction of Gabrielle Noble, belted out the Frank Loesser songs in fine style (sometimes a little too loudly from where I sat in the cheap seats, managing to drown out some of the dialogue), with the brass section doubling as the Mission band.
The direction was super-slick, with the elements of acting, singing and dancing perfectly integrated and the milling bodies on stage perfectly marshalled. The US accents were no general-purpose efforts, but straight out of Queens or the Bronx. The choreography alone (by Eleanor Shearer and Nils Behling) was outstanding. I've seen lots of student musicals over the years, and the choreography has ever been a bit of an Achilles heel: hitherto, "basic-to-satisfactory" on the report card has been the limit. Here we had precise, synchronised dancing in spades - I especially picked out Emelye Moulton and Phoebe Mansell for their energy, and Nils Behling himself was a human dynamo, everywhere at once.
Of the main players, Marcus Knight-Adams was a gravelly-voiced heavy of stern presence; Ed Chancellor looked every inch a church elder (and sang his song manfully); the wonderfully-named and dapper Nicely-Nicely Johnson, a dead ringer for Edward G. Robinson, brought the house down with his Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat, and his colleague Nathan Detroit (Laurence Belcher) combined a dodgy exterior with a big heart, and moved beautifully on stage. Gemma Lowcock, while not always pitch-perfect in her songs, convinced as cradle-Christian Sarah Brown with more of a roving eye than altogether convenient, and as her would-be paramour, Sky Masterson - a difficult part with more exuberant characters all around him - Eoghan McNelis warmed up after a sticky start and doubtless will come into his own as the show rolls on this week. I enjoyed his baritone voice. As the hopeful bride, the brash softie Miss Adelaide, Emilie Finch was the complete professional. I even thought of Barbra Streisand as she dominated the stage in her scenes, belting out her songs with the audience following her every move as she wisecracked, despaired and finally got her man.
The show's in theory almost or completely sold out all week, but on Wednesday there were a few empty seats, so you might strike lucky. Make no mistake, this is top-notch entertainment, scintillating in ambition and execution.