Saturday, October 14, 2017

Guys and Dolls at the Stratford Festival

I'm in Burlington visiting my family for a few days and yesterday we all piled into the car to take in a matinee at the Stratford Festival, which is just winding up its 2017/18 season. The timing of my visit--combined with what seems like the steady yearly attrition of the festival's Shakespearean mandate--meant that it was Guys and Dolls which was in repertory that day at the main Festival theatre stage. Directed and choreographed by Donna Feore, who has established herself in recent years as Stratford's musical theatre hitmaker, the production had also received glowing reviews. So I was anticipating a pretty good time. Apart from the dancing of the male chorus, however, I was mostly bored.

With music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows (based on stories by Damon Runyon), Guys and Dolls has famously been dubbed "the perfect musical" and despite its antiquated gender politics is regularly revived. The movie adaptation starred an incongruously cast Marlon Brando as the high rolling gambler Sky Masterson, and Frank Sinatra turned the song "Luck Be a Lady" into a signature tune. The plot focuses on two apparently mismatched couples: Nathan Detroit (Sean Arbuckle) is a dice man who runs a weekly craps game in and around Times Square, and who has been engaged to his long-suffering fiancee, the nightclub performer Miss Adelaide (a winningly cartoonish Blythe Wilson), for fourteen years; Masterson (Evan Buliung) has never met a bet he wouldn't take, including as concerns our plot the challenge of convincing the straightlaced Salvation Army officer Sarah Brown (Alexis Gordon), who is not having much luck of her own saving souls among the denizens of Broadway, of flying with him to Havana to have dinner.

In between the two sets of lovers inevitably coming together--as, of course, they must--we get to hear a lot of great tunes, including "A Bushel and a Peck," "Adelaide's Lament," "If I Were a Bell," the aforementioned "Luck Be a Lady," and "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat," a gospel-tinged roof raiser which is delivered by the secondary character Nicely-Nicely Johnson (a scene-stealing Steve Ross) at a climactic Salvation Army prayer meeting attended by the grab-bag of gamblers from Nathan's craps game as a favour to Sky--who has promised to deliver to Sarah a roomful of sinners in order to impress her superior. These last two numbers feature spectacular choreography by Feore for the male ensemble, who far outshine their female counterparts in the hoofing department. By contrast, in terms of the acting and singing of the leads, it is the women who trump the men. In its depiction of the relationship between the sexes, one might say that Guys and Dolls is the Taming of the Shrew of Broadway musicals. And so much hinges on the penultimate number, "Marry the Man Today," in which Sarah and Adelaide decide together to take a risk on their hapless men, under the assumption that they'll be able to bend them to their respective wills after a ring is placed on each of their fingers. Happily, Feore has Gordon and Wilson telegraph proto-feminist resolve rather than wifely submission.

Elsewhere, however, some of the director's decisions are head-scratching. Why, for example, during the Hot Box number "Take Back Your Mink" would you send out Adelaide and her accompanying chorus girls wearing rhinestone necklaces rather than pearls (as indicated in the lyrics)? Much of the blocking between songs in this book-heavy production also seemed counter-intuitive. More generally the pacing felt sluggish, with the energy from the choreography accompanying the bigger numbers failing to be sustained in the dialogue between the actors.

Not that any of this seemed to bother yesterday's audience, which was instantly on its feet at the end. That included the class of high school students sitting behind us, Guys and Dolls being a staple of high school musical theatre repertoires. My drama teaching sister-in-law Arline has seen many such versions of the musical, and also directed one of her own. She, like me, was not impressed with this one.


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