by Lynn on June 9, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Festival Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser
Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows
Based on a story and characters by Damon Runyon
Directed and choreographed by Donna Feore
Music direction by Laura Burton
Set by Michael Gianfrancesco
Costumes by Dana Osborne
Lighting by Michael Walton
Sound by Peter Boyle
Cast: Sean Arbuckle
Evan Buliung
Beau Dixon
Alexis Gordon
Lisa Horner
John Kirkpatrick
Laurie Murdock
Glynis Ranney
Steve Ross
Brad Rudy
Mark Uhre
Blythe Wilson

Lively and joyous with a few concerns including please, PLEASE lower the volume! We actually want to hear and listen to the dialogue and music without having our ears drums burst.

The Story. Nathan Detroit, poor soul, is frantically looking for a private place for his floating craps game. He can’t let Miss Adelaide, his fiancée of 14 years know because she wants him to give it up. The police of course must not know. Nathan needs a quick $1,000 as a deposit on a place for the craps game so he bets Sky Masterson—a slick gambler who bets on anything—on how much cheesecake vs strudel is sold at a particular restaurant. That idea flops too. But Sky is bet that he can’t take any ‘doll’ on a little trip to Havana, Cuba. Sky takes the bet until he realizes whom he has to take. It’s prim, proper Miss Sarah Brown of the Salvation Army. Will he succeed or will Sarah thwart him.

The Production. Director/choreographer Donna Feore and her smart set designer, Michael Gianfrancesco initially create the grey, dark and gloomy world of New York City in the dead of night. That’s when the sharp-dressing, formal, quirky-talking gambling, gangster guys and their sassy dolls come to life.

Feore sets the tone of this lively, slightly dangerous world of mobsters and gamblers with the cleverest bit of business to get us to turn off our phones. A mobster wanders on stage. A phone upstage rings, and rings and rings. The mobster paces in frustration at the ringing. He takes out his gun and shoots it. Silence. Then the mobster looks at us and points, indicating the same might happen if our phones go off.

In a flash that grey world changes into blazing neon colour (Kudos to lighting designer, Michael Walton). Feore makes those people pulse with kinetic energy as a pickpocket goes about his business of relieving people of their heavy wallets, men and women meet for dates, even a poor drunk has his own little story when he thinks he got lucky as he sidles up to a woman in a red dress and begins to fondle her breasts, not realizing ‘she’ is a mannequin. A photographer takes flash pictures of it all. In a wonderful bit of cheek Feore makes the photographer a woman. It’s doubtful that would happen in the 1930s (the approximate time of the show), but since the women in Guys and Dolls rule why not make the photographer a woman too. Love that.

Dana Osborne’s flashy, form-fitting suits for the guys and the skimpy garb for the chorus-girl dolls (except for Sarah Brown and her ‘sisters’) suggests a world of dazzle and preening. The men take pride in how they look and these suits show that off.

But while clothes might make the man, (or woman) it’s an actor’s performance that makes the character and the performances here are very fine. Sean Arbuckle as Nathan Detroit is a man who worries; first about finding a place for the craps game and then about keeping it from Miss Adelaide. He is a man who likes things the way they are, so I guess that’s why he doesn’t marry Adelaide. Arbuckle creates a portrait of a sweet wimp who does love Adelaide but can’t move forward. Blyth Wilson plays Adelaide as almost always smiling, except for her sneezing when she gets frustrated with Nathan’s lack of movement towards marriage. I do wish that Wilson has a bit more edge to her portrayal. Adelaide has grit. Wilson could show more of it. Her singing and dancing are dandy.

Alexis Gordon, as Sarah Brown, has such nuance and layers to her portrayal of this uptight, upright salvation army woman. And she sings with a clear soprano voice that floats with ease. She is equally matched by Evan Buliung as the suave Sky Masterson. Nothing fazes him or intimidates him until he meets Sarah. And what starts as a bet to take her to Havana ends with him falling in love with her. Sky is an honourable man with a conscience and a strong moral centre—all beautifully rendered in Buliung’s performance.

One can go crazy with the puns and word play of Steve Ross’ performance as Nicely-Nicely Johnson. I won’t fall into the trap. Ross plays Nicely-Nicely as a kind of distracted, sweet, always eating ‘nebbish.’ He scurries with a purpose and sings like a dream, especially in “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat.”

Feore’s choreography as always is fast almost to the point of frantic and leaves everyone, including the audience, breathless. Whether it’s the intoxicating throb of “Havana” or the revival meeting vibe of “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat,” or the acrobatic-balletic slide of “The Crapshooters Dance” and “Luck Be A Lady,” Feore ramps up the energy level with each number.
Interestingly Feore appears to have told her cast to let the audience dictate how long the applause lasts for each number. The cast holds the last pose as the applause just rolls in and only breaks that pose when it’s thought the applause is lessening. Usually the person ‘charged’ with breaking the pose first, then followed by the rest of the group, breaks the pose when the applause is loudest, just to get the show going. Not with this show. I thought that interesting.

While the show throbs with energy and many scenes of witty humour, I do have some concerns regarding Feore’s staging. The show is full of so many of her witty touches why then are songs sung with clichéd staging. For example, Sarah’s grandfather, Arvide Abernathy (a wonderfully touching Laurie Murdoch) sings “More I Cannot Wish You” in which he expresses his hopes for a life full of love for her. He faces Sarah when he sings it tenderly. But then Feore has Arvide turn away from Sarah and face the audience, still singing. So Sarah is smiling and looking at his back. Arvide turns back to Sarah and continues singing tenderly only to walk away again, this time downstage, again facing the audience. Again, Sarah is left abandoned still smiling at Arvide’s back.

What is that? That staging compromises the audience’s engagement in the song and the characters involved in it. When the two characters are together with one singing to the other (who is listening intently) the audience is right there with them. But when one character veers off on his own (as Arvide does) then the whole point is compromised. Feore has done this too often in other shows as well. Why can’t she trust the music and the people who sing it to grip the audience?

In “Take Back Your Mink” sung by Adelaide and her Hot Box Dancers she places the chorus downstage giving them the focus and Adelaide upstage where she is almost lost, even though she is standing on a raised platform. Surely the staging should be reversed.

And about the volume, it is too loud both when the chorus sings and when anyone speaks. Why is that? How many times do audience members have to be heard to say (at intermission and at the end) ‘It’s too loud” before anyone listens and lowers the volume? It’s not a rock concert. We are there to listen. The orchestra is microphoned as is the cast. Our ears in the audience are hurting. Please solve this.

Comment. How to reconcile the fact that Sky takes Sarah to Havana to win a bet and then takes her to a taverna and plies her with the drink dolce de leche but doesn’t tell her that there is rum in it. In 2017, with rape culture in our headlines every day, this section of Guys and Dolls makes us suck air. Sky is not taking her to Havana overnight. He is taking her there to his favourite restaurant and will then bring her back to New York that night. Sarah loves this sweet milk drink and sucks it back quickly and immediately loosens up as a result. Sky is horrified when Sarah gets very drunk very quickly, and realizes he has to protect her from herself and the rest of the men in the place who don’t care about protecting her.

Guys and Dolls is a wonderful musical with that uncomfortable bit that in a sense brings out the moral streak in Sky. It certainly makes us ponder the world of the show and our own. While I have concerns, Donna Feore has done a fine job of filling the production with her vision, choreography and humour. Her company of actors and dancers is sterling.

Presented by the Stratford Festival.

Opened: May 29, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 29, 2017.
Cast: 33; 21 men, 12 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes, approx.

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