No one need worry about taking a gamble on the Stratford Festival’s first musical of the 2017 season and venturing into the Festival Theatre for this tale (based on a pair of short stories and characters from the creative mind of Damon Runyon¾the book written by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows) of the literal/metaphoric crapshoot of life in New York City and the mostly ineffective attempts of a Broadway Salvation Army Mission to bring serial sinners into the healing hands of God.
As the Festival’s in-house musical maker, Donna Feore moves from strength to strength (first reviewed in these pages with the 2007 production of Oklahoma!¾cross-reference below). With this offering, she can certainly lay claim to being one of the finest choreographers for this type of show in Canada, if not the planet.
The second act exploded with Feore’s marvellous inventiveness and stellar understanding of the music at hand along with the capabilities of her talented charges as marvellously demonstrated in “The Crapshooters’ Dance” where the addicts of dice morphed into a ballet troupe with poise, precision and (a crowd-pleaser with Cirque du Soleil quality) gymnastic displays that were as thrilling as they were well-executed. (Most especially by newcomer Devon Michael Brown whose lithe movements seemed to defy gravity!)
Also demonstrating considerable skill and joie de vivre are the Hot Box Girls in such scintillating numbers as “a Bushel and a Peck” and¾most certainly in the showstopper category to open Act II, “Take Back Your Mink”. Nearly all of their other clothes are “returned” much to the delight of men of all ages who may have thought that going to the theatre was just to humour their wives¾especially during the Stanley Cup Playoffs!
Unfortunately, the show frequently lags between the big numbers, partially because the book is showing its age and many jokes fell flat: even a “sure thing” like “holy rollers” felt lame. (If only the likes of Stephen Fry could tart up the dialogue and leave the music alone as witness the wonderful result of him doing just that in the Shaw Festival’s hit, Me and my Girl, which blasted off less than a week ago¾cross-reference below).
The vocal contributions were also somewhat uneven with the women far outdoing the men. Blythe Wilson is a triple threat par excellence in her ever-engaging portrayal of Miss Adelaide¾the perennial fiancée hoping against hope that her man will finally give up the dice and take on respectable work. Also firing on all sing-dance-act cylinders is Alexis Gordon, serving up do-gooder then rum devotee Sarah Brown with verve, range of emotion and an upper register that knows not what strain is!
The duet, “Marry the Man Today” (not surprisingly by then¾it’s the penultimate number in the show), was the most consistent, beautifully rendered song of the show and with such power, range and projection between them, it’s a wonder the microphones didn’t shut themselves off out of respect.
Their male counterparts (Sean Arbuckle as Nathan Detroit, Evan Buliung playing Sky Masterson) have first-rate acting chops but have yet to master the fine art of supporting their singing lines no matter what dynamic is called for.
They could learn a thing or two from Steve Ross (a hoot as Nicely Nicely Johnson) whose late-inning “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” was a marvel at every turn.
In the hidden-away pit, conductor Laura Burton did an admirable job, keeping the ensembles together with only a few “off the rails” moments and a couple of too-raw-by-half, screech-trumpet excursions to the stratosphere causing any concern.
Nonetheless, get ye to Stratford and savour the electricity of unbridled enthusiasm mixed with great skill before the final curtain next fall. JWR