These Delightful Dolls

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Byline: MICHAEL COVENEY

GREAT musicals, and the best pantomime, provide lift-off for an audience, that special rush of spine-tingling pleasure when the show hits the collective spot with a vengeance.

So, challenged a friend when I returned from Rachel Kavanaugh's glorious revival of GUYS AND DOLLS (at the Sheffield Crucible - verdict: *****), was it as good as Richard Eyre's at the National?

At least as, I replied. Damon Runyan's colourful characters, in a book by Joe Swerling and Abe Burrows, set to Frank Loesser's music and lyrics, is one of the best ever musicals.

It certainly seems so at Sheffield, where the Manhattan skyline spreads above the action, the crap-game participants gather and Sky Masterson falls in love with Salvation Army girl Sarah Brown.

The production is as tight as a drum, the costumes a regular eyeful, the choreography of Craig Revel Horwood and musical direction of Catherine Jayes delightful.

Harry Burton as Sky, Claire Carrie as Sarah, Ian Bartholomew as Nathan Detroit and Martin Callaghan as Nicely Nicely Johnson (rocking the boat in the Salvation Army mission) are all first class.

But the peach in the fruit salad is Tracie Bennett (Sharon Gaskell in Coronation Street) as Miss Adelaide, rejecting her mink in a huff and developing a cold in a tantrum, the flouncing nightclub chanteuse and perennial fiancee.

Miss Bennett is simply knockout, as dizzy and funny as Lucille Ball, and as sexy as any of the Hot Box girls who slay the punters in the pink, ruche-curtained low dive.

The score for THE WIZARD OF OZ (Richmond Theatre, Surrey verdict: ***) by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg is just as well known, just as well loved, and this 1985 RSC version is a regular treat.

Tudor Davies's production does not have the killer punch of the Sheffield show, but it doesn't miss a trick in the parallels between Dorothy's Kansas farm and the Emerald City in the Land of Oz.

EMILY Shaw is a sweet Dorothy, and her friends are beautifully played by Simon Slater as the Cowardly Lion, Paul Hendy as Scarecrow and lean, lanky Graham King as Tin Man.

They all make way, though, for Anita Dobson as the Wicked Witch, a ferment of non-stop, swivel-hipped malice in a lime shock of a Tina Turner wig.

Miss Dobson does not so much burn up the stage as torch it, and the clever detail in her nastiness is a joy to behold. …