Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Hitting the Jackpot: Guys and Dolls at the Stratford Festival

Evan Buliung (centre) with members of the company, in Guys and Dolls at the Stratford Festival. (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Let there be no confusion. In Guys and Dolls, the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning musical at Canada's Stratford Festival until the end of October, men are men and women are, well, the dolls in the musical comedy Jo Swerling, Abe Burrows and composer-lyricist Frank Loesser created almost 70 years ago when gender identity, sexual orientation and gender expression were a whole lot less complicated than they are today. Based on newspaper man Damon Runyon's 1930s collection of short stories about the denizens of New York's Depression-era underworld, the show is a throwback. But a rollicking one that makes no apologies for wanting to revel in stereotypical portraits of gangsters, gamblers and showgirls with seam-stockinged gams.

Director Donna Feore uncorks the sexist silliness and lets it fizz all over the stage. You lap it up, laughing at the wit and impudence, the broad New York accents sputtered by broads and assorted miscreants, happy to roll along with the dice. Her revamped version of Guys and Dolls hits the jackpot with exhilarating choreography, pitch-perfection renditions of all the hit songs from the 1950 original – "Luck Be A Lady," "If I Were a Bell" and "A Bushel and a Peck" included  and consistently snappy performances from a high-energy ensemble whose infectiously joyous members bring a jolt of panache to every scene. Feore's masterful version is brisk, bright and bouncingly energetic, with never a dull moment. This is the musical for even those who hate musicals: a work of art where the music is a natural extension of the dramatic impulse and the dancing an integral component of the narrative flow.

The storyline, which the 1955 film version starring Frank Sinatra, Jean Simmons, Marlon Brando and Vivian Blaine has helped make familiar, is simple yet saucy. Nathan Detroit, engaged for 14 years to the long-suffering Miss Adelaide, a hoofer with a heart of gold, runs "the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York," yet needs $1,000 to secure the illegal game's next venue. He hopes to get the money by betting inveterate gambler Sky Masterson that he can't persuade earnest Salvation Army Sergeant Sarah Brown to fly down to Havana with him.

Word of the impending game attracts a host of nefarious characters like Harry the Horse, Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Rusty Charlie and the baddest of them all, Big Jule, who pronounces it "Julie." Also interested in the game, but for entirely different reasons, is NYPD Lieutenant Brannigan, whose knack of showing up at unexpected times turns craps into the kind of chaos which only a marriage (or two) can reverse. It's a total mess, pulsing with contradictions and deliberate confusion about who, if anyone, is telling the truth. Luck definitely plays a role in setting up the double-wedding finale, if that's not giving too much more of the plot away. But what's not left to chance are the vividly drawn Runyonesque characters bursting with personality.

Sean Arbuckle and Blythe Wilson in Guys and Dolls. (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Bringing them to life are the eighteen Stratford Festival players Feore has handpicked to give her production of Guys and Dolls zip and charm. Evan Buliung strikes the right balance between smugness and humility, creating a Sky Masterson even a missionary could love. As that servant of God, Alexis Gordon brings a strong hint of sensuality to the role of Sarah Brown, making her far less prissy than in other interpretations of the part and more believable as a Salvationist who would like Bacardi  even after just one taste. Sean Arbuckle is wonderfully endearing as the roguish Nathan Detroit, a man down but never quite out of his game. He spends most of the time waiting for his big payday, not realizing that love, staring him right in the face, is the bigger bonus.

That love is, of course, the blonde and buxom Miss Adelaide, played by Blythe Wilson as a ditzy delight who sneezes and coughs her way most admirably through her signature song, "Adelaide's Lament." Wilson turns it into a showstopper. In secondary roles, Steve Ross plays Nicely-Nicely with superb comic timing, stealthily pacing himself to pull out all the stops to sing the rousing "Sit Down, You're Rocking The Boat," his dream song about being saved from damnation.

Mark Uhre plays sidekick Benny Southstreet with the wiry agility of a fox on the scent. Other standouts include Laurie Murdoch as Arvide Abernathy, Sarah's sweetly protective fellow mission worker and grandfather, Beau Dixon as the dangerous lunkhead Big Jule, and Lisa Horner as General Matilda B. Cartwright, the chief evangelist in charge of sinner recruitment.

Filling their modest meeting halls with souls to be saved is the primary goal of the Christian soldiers. Finding what they need on the mean streets of New York is as much a game of probabilities as shooting craps, making both high and holy rollers not that much different from each other. Essentially, everyone in Guys and Dolls is on the make. Feore neatly avoids presenting the different sides as strictly opposed from one another. Her musical isn't a black-and-white vision. It's a lot more colourful, thoughtful, and reflective of real life as seen in Times Square, which is where most of the musical's action, moral and otherwise, takes place.

Set designer Michael Gianfrancesco, costume designer Dana Osborne and lighting designer Michael Walton conspire to create a Manhattan as seamy as it is sensational. Their creative energies gel most effectively in the scene in which Wilson, playing a dejected Miss Adelaide, performs a sizzling burlesque around the song, |Take Back Your Mink," in a nightclub winkingly called The Hot Box. Music director Laura Burton serves up the tune with gusto, striking up the band and making it holler. The louder the better. This irrepressible production deserves no less.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press) and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds (Vintage Books). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail for the last 32 years, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic, from 1985 until 2001, before transitioning to the Style section as its senior fashion reporter in Milan, Paris, New York and cities across Canada. Her other accomplishments at Canada's paper of record include stints as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime, a weekly lifestyle columnist covering the Toronto International Film Festival and celebrities, rock critic, business writer and cultural bureau chief in Montreal covering the arts in Quebec and Eastern Canada. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she has also written for a wide range of international titles, including Marie Claire in London, Elle in New York and Vogue Australia. Recipient of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Theatre Criticism (Long Form Category), Canada's most important arts writing prize, she is presently at work on her next book, an examination of The Beatles and their style.

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