by Lynn on November 22, 2012

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Mady Theatre in Barrie, Ontario. Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows. Based on Damon Runyon’s stories. Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser. Directed by Richard Ouzounian. Set by Katherine Salnek. Costumes by Erika Connor. Lighting by Alex McQuilkin. Choreography by Amanda Nagy. Starring: Kyle Blair, Gabrielle Jones, Jennifer Lyon, Erica Peck, Steve Ross.

Produced by Talk is Free Theatre. Plays until Nov. 24.

The wonderful Guys and Dolls seems to be the musical of choice this year. Last month you could see a splendid production of it at the Segal Centre for the Arts in Montreal, directed by Diana Leblanc. The Shaw Festival has programmed it for next summer directed by Tudeusz Bradecki. And now until November 24 you can see a production of it directed by Richard Ouzounain, with a twist at the Mady Theatre in Barrie produced by the spunky Talk is Free Theatre.

Guys and Dolls, based on the quirky stories of Damon Runyon, concerns a group of gamblers who are looking for Nathan Detroit’s famous floating crap game. He must hide such information from his ‘doll’ Adelaide, to whom he has been engaged for 14 years, because she will be mighty upset if she knew he was still hosting it. Nathan has a possible place but must present $1000 to the owner to get permission. Nathan does not have such a sum of money. Nathan lucks on to an idea. Über gambler, Sky Masterson always has wads of cash and a confidence when dealing with ‘dolls’. Nathan will bet Sky said $1000 that he cannot convince a certain ‘doll’ to go with him to Havana, Cuba. The ‘doll’ is Sister Sarah Brown of the Salvation Army. She and her troupe have been trying desperately to attract sinners to their mission in the heart of Broadway but are having no luck. If something doesn’t happen soon her mission will have to close. Sky not only sees the impossibility of the bet but also the solution. He will give Sarah his marker for six sinners (Talk is Free Theatre is a small theatre company so casting the original number of 12 sinners would have been daunting) if she comes to Havana with him. Such dilemmas. The show has a lot of soul searching and wonderful songs that get people through: “Sit Down, You’re Rockin the Boat”, “I’ll Know”, “Adelaide’s Lament”. “Guys and Dolls”, “I’ve Never Been in Love Before.”

It’s a buoyant yet moving musical in which the guys dress impeccably, but with flash, in well tailored suits. The dolls flounce in frills and the salvation army folks are buttoned up to the chin. The gamblers speak in an exaggerated formality with a mix of slang, but they never swear. It’s a very special Runyon world.

As for the twist in the Talk is Free Theatre production—from the press release and echoed by Richard Ouzounian’s director’s note in the program: “On the surface, Guys and Dolls is an amusing urban fairytale musical about gangsters and showgirls. Below the surface, however, the musical reveals that roles were changing in society and women would be increasingly taking charge in the decades ahead. What better way to show this than by having the entire cast played by the opposite of the conventional sexual roles: women as “guys” and men as “dolls”?

In a word, twaddle.

Switching the genders isn’t a re-thinking of the musical. It’s merely a gimmick. And a ridiculous one at that. One doesn’t have to go ‘below the surface’ to find any revelation that roles were changing in society and women would be increasingly taking charge in the decades ahead.” All one has to do is look at the musical in the face (and not below any surface) and it’s obvious.

There are three women in the show already in charge. Sarah Brown, prim, proper and trusting, charms hardnosed Sky Masterson into falling in love with her and leaving his ‘sinning, gambling’ ways to marry her. Miss Adelaide, patiently waiting for 14 years for Nathan to marry her finally calls him out and threatens to leave him, which shocks him into marrying her because he doesn’t want to lose her. And General Mathilda Cartwright of the Salvation Army has attained a rank usually reserved for men.

This is not to say that the production isn’t a success. While it is pared down it does have a sweet charm and joyfulness. Not the least of which is that it’s presented as a kind of cabaret with the audience sitting at tables around the stage, and not in formal theatre seats. Ouzounian’s direction and staging are workman-like and for once he doesn’t muddy the proceedings with busy scene changes. Katherine Salnek’s set is minimal and stylish with only a bench or two as props. Erika Connor’s costumes are flashy yet sartorially splendid. Amanda Nagy’s choreography is energetic for such a small space.

But the cast raises the whole enterprise from the mire of the gimmick to the level of conviction and commitment, not to mention dandy performances. Leading the lot is Kyle Blair as Sarah Brown. In wig, lipstick, prim buttoned uniform Blair is self-contained and easily offended as Sarah. Frustration oozes out of Sarah at her predicament thanks to Blair’s performance. He is quite moving too. He has a strong singing voice albeit with a touch of vibrato that at times is a worry, but on the whole Kyle Blair gives a convincing performance. It should be interesting to see him in the Shaw Festival production playing Sky Masterson.

As Sky Masterson, Jennifer Lyon has the easy physical confidence of a man in control and a lovely voice as well. As Nathan Detroit, Gabrielle Jones, with a hint of a moustache, is as edgy and nervous as a man can be trying to please his fellow gamblers with the crap game and trying to hid that news to appease his fiancée. As Miss Adelaide, Steve Ross, a big fellah in real life, makes Miss Adelaide larger than life. And there are moments that are quiet touching, when you least expect it.

Interestingly the actors playing the women tower over the actresses playing the men. This doesn’t give the false sense that the ‘dolls’ of the show are overpowering the ‘guys’ of the show. It’s just a visual observation that also proves the point…the women characters in the show hold the power, genderbending gimmick notwithstanding.

And one can’t ignore the fact that Ouzounian has cast some of the leading lights in musical theatre in the country to be in his production. And then when he puts on his reviewer’s hat for the Toronto Star he will review these same people in their future shows. A bit incestuous, that.

Guys and Dolls plays at the Mady Theatre until Nov. 24.

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