STRATFORD, Ont. — When it comes to choreography and visuals, the Stratford Festival’s latest production of Guys And Dolls consistently hits the jackpot.
To be sure the Broadway it offers remains a place of the imagination: initially the imagination of Damon Runyon, whose short stories about lovable low-lifers provided the impetus for a show that in turn would brilliantly showcase the inventive genius of composer-lyricist Frank Loesser and book writers Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling.
This is a product of Broadway’s golden age, one of the greatest of all American musicals. And director Donna Feore and her colleagues have ensured it explosions of creative energy and vitality as good as you’ll find anywhere.
The look of the show is one of its assets, and also a demonstration of the versatility of the famed Festival Theatre stage when entrusted to visual wizards as confident and resourceful as set designer Michael Gianfrancesco and lighting designer Michael Walton. The opening transition from muted monochrome hues to a cacophony of colour is entrancing. And when Walton gets going with the neon glitz and glitter of a fantasized Times Square, we’re brought to a whole new level of viewing pleasure that is further enhanced by Dana Osborne’s costuming
But perhaps the most stunning moment of creative fusion comes in the second act when gambling promoter Nathan Detroit’s desperate attempts to find a safe venue for an illegal crap game lead him to the privacy of the city sewers. Can a thrust stage really accommodate this kind of transformation? Oh yes. Definitely. It may all be smoke and mirrors, but it works superbly. And what we also get in this sequence is perhaps the most brilliant choreography Donna Feore has so far given us in her years of working at Stratford. The Crapshooters’ Dance — a riot of limbs, zoot suits, and wide-brimmed headgear — is so endlessly inventive, so contagious in its energy, that you don’t want it to end.
Indeed, it’s with the ensemble numbers that the show consistently excels. The orchestra, under the energetic baton of festival veteran Laura Burton, is there to help everything along in communicating the glories of the Loesser score. And we have an exceptional ensemble of singers and dancers with the confidence and talent to respond as easily to the pulsating rhythms of the Havana night club where gambler Sky Masterson and mission girl Sarah Brown end up near the end of the first act, as it does to the classic Save A Soul Mission sequence where Steve Ross’s Nicely-Nicely Johnson leads his fellow sinners in that uproarious musical confessional, Sit Down, You’re Rocking The Boat.
Ross’s engaging portrayal of the lovable Nicely-Nicely typifies the production at its best. He has a knack for harnessing character to material. So do Mark Uhre and Marcus Nance, excellent as a pair of fellow gamblers who join him in the vocally demanding Fugue For Tinhorns — one of the finest but also most audacious opening numbers in the annals of Broadway.
If only you could say the same for all the performances. Some leave the feeling that they haven’t been well thought out. Lisa Horner, for example, is encouraged to turn the character of mission officer General Matilda B. Cartwright into a silly caricature, and Beau Dixon is not having as much fun as he should with the character of Big Jule, a towering Chicago gangster who has come to the Big Apple to shot craps. Indeed, it almost seems that this production is so preoccupied with the musical numbers that it doesn’t always attend to what’s happening with dialogue. Too many good lines fall flat.
Among the main performers, Blythe Wilson shines as the Miss Adelaide, the indomitable queen of the Hot Box Club. She exists in a permanent state of engagement to Nathan Detroit, the beleaguered proprietor of the oldest floating crap game in New York; she’s also in a permanent case of misery from the sniffles. Wilson delivers the the funniest and most human characterization in the show, and musically she’s comic dynamite —swivelling in all her tacky glory through Take Back Your Mink, and bringing down the house in Adelaide’s Lament, her magnificently nasal ode to the common cold.
Sean Arbuckle is perhaps too predictable as the jittery Nathan, a role Laurence Olivier once yearned to play, but does manage some sharp moments of comic chemistry with Wilson’s Miss Adelaide. On the other hand real chemistry seems to be almost entirely lacking between the main principals — Evan Buliung, as gambler extraordinaire Sky Masterson, and Alexis Gordon as the Mission doll he lures across the water to a night of revelry in Cuba in order to win a bet. Theirs is one of musical theatre’s most improbable but delightful courtships — or at least it should be — but you wait in vain for the flame to be lit.
Buliung has a sufficiently pleasing singing voice to get him through a number like I’ve Never Been In Love Before, but his over-all performance is more surface swagger than charisma. It’s also deficient in the charm quotient. Alexis Gordon, spectacularly good as Julie Jordan in Carousel a couple of seasons ago, seems to have difficulty getting a handle on Sarah Brown, the guileless but determined Mission girl committed to saving souls. Gordon, who seems to equate assertiveness with aggressiveness when it comes to her character, needs to show more warmth and vulnerability, and she might also dial back on her embarrassing drunk scene in a Havana night club. Meanwhile, she gamely responds to the challenges of a score that doesn’t quite seem suited to her soaring soprano voice. This performer is a valuable festival resource, but at the moment she doesn’t quite connect with the character of Sarah. Hopefully, this will change and as the summer progresses, her immense talent will come to the fore and further benefit a production that is already stunning in so many ways.
(Guys And Dolls continues to Oct. 29. Ticket information at 1 800 567 1600 or stratfordfestival.ca)