For most theatregoers, this season’s flagship musical will be worth the gamble of time, travel and cash. With a direct link-by-character to the playbill’s Major Barbara (the Salvation Army once again gets a key part and the role of Sarah Brown has been lovingly lifted from George Bernard Shaw’s title persona—intriguingly, the more common blue uniform seen in Shaw’s work morphs to red in costume designer Sue LePage’s view), it’s great fun to see the same sort of moral dilemma (the danger of a soul saver slipping over to the “other” side) dealt with in a completely different way and just one day later.
Apart from Shaw’s play, Guys and Dolls can trace its provenance back to Damon Runyon’s short story, “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” (also fodder for Happy End—cross-reference below). Keeping up the tradition of “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” composer/lyricist Frank Loesser raided all sources to cobble together this musical which began its storied life on Broadway, November 24, 1950. Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows crafted the book.
For its inaugural production at the Shaw, director Tadeusz Bradecki, set designer Peter Hartwell and lighting designer Kevin Lamotte seem to have inverted the notion that Runyon’s “people are decidedly flat” by dressing the festival stage in a predominant black-and-white hue, all the better to reinforce the subtle colours of LePage’s costumes and—with a couple of exceptions—the generally pastel instrumental and vocal contributions from the orchestra, on-stage band and cast.
The principal pair exude believability as the unlikely couple, but aren’t a musical match of the first rank. Elodie Gillett’s Sarah Brown is uneven throughout the registers but—happily, as so many singers don’t realize the power of introspection in their lines—a force to contend with when she enters the realm of sotto voce. Fresh from being one of few highlights of last year’s Pirates of Penzance at Stratford, Kyle Blair readily convinces as Sky Masterson; once he’s mastered a more varied, controlled vibrato he’ll become the leading man of choice.
The subplot pairing of newcomer Jenny Wright playing Miss Adelaide and Shawn Wright as Nathan Detroit had a definite air of Gracie Allen and George Burns. The duo provided some of the best laughs and most consistent singing of the night.
When required to be at full cry, the men’s chorus lacked a true sustaining tone and were far from pitch perfect; the opening trio, “Fugue for Tinhorns,” instantly relieved the too busy-by-half overture (couldn’t we just savour the music from Paul Sportelli and his intrepid pit band?) but too many of the fast-flying lyrics were lost in the unnecessary electronic reinforcement.
Choreographer Parker Esse’s wisely conservative numbers (“Havana” provided the first real spark) made effective use of the talent at hand and quietly allowed some of the company’s latest additions to have brief moments in the sun. “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” was the crowd favourite—and rightly so: Thom Allison impressively filled his earlier promise as Nicely-Nicely Johnson to a T and the ensemble fed off his energy, causing the stage to glow like never before. What a pity the show couldn’t open with the same mixture or skill and pizazz.
For those who savour the thrill of rolling the dice, this production will not disappoint. JWR