Odds are that Guys and Dolls will become the biggest box-office hit in the history of the Shaw Festival.
There’s such an unappeasable hunger for Frank Loesser’s 1950 “musical fable of Broadway,” and Shaw has developed such a strong reputation among audiences for solid, straight takes on American musicals in recent years, that its run in the festival’s flagship 856-seat theatre was extended by 15 performances even before the show officially opened on Saturday night.
Luckily, ticket holders will not be disappointed with Polish director Tadeusz Bradecki’s fine production.
Though it is exceedingly hard to come up craps when you throw Loesser’s perfectly constructed confection on a stage, Bradecki happens to have a history of staging musicals about Salvation Army sisters and gambling gangsters. He helmed Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s similarly themed musical from 1929, Happy End, at the Shaw Festival back in 2003 and 2005.
Happy End gave the world the aphorism that “Robbing a bank is no crime compared to owning one,” but Guys and Dolls is more conservative and complacent in its politics, premiering as it did on the other end of a depression and the Second World War.
Indeed, it really has few preoccupations outside of its own contained cartoon world inspired by the whimsical writing of Damon Runyon.
Bradecki’s production gets off on the wrong foot with a sloppy opening sequence showing the denizens of this fantasy version of New York’s Broadway district – gangsters, policemen, bobby soxers and tourists – strutting about during the overture. It is full of physical comedy that falls flat and sight gags you’ve seen a million times before.
Bradecki makes no misstep after that, however. By the time, Shawn Wright’s deadpan Nathan Detroit enters the stage all is right in the land of Runyon. That’s good, old, reliable Nathan – particularly so in Wright’s sweet and slightly sad performance. He has a hint of a Cirque du Soleil clown to him, his lips frequently widening into a long, flat line and then collapsing into an overstated frown of frustration.
Guys and Dolls’ plot concerns a pair of contrasting romances that end, in classic comedy fashion, with marriage. High roller Sky Masterson (Kyle Blair) accepts a bet that he can’t take the Salvation Army’s preacher Sarah Brown (Elodie Gillett) to Cuba – and then the sinner and saint fall in love, hitting a few bumps on the way to the altar. Then, there’s Nathan and his fed-up fiancée of 14 years, Adelaide (Jenny L Wright) who works as a burlesque dancer at the Hot Box.
Sky and Sarah have the most beautiful songs, with lyrics that line up, but their claims of never having been in love before are utterly unbelievable. Adelaide and Nathan’s musical squabbling, however, – “you promise me this, you promise me that,” in counterpoint with “Sue me” – is funny because it’s true. “I thought I hated Nathan,” says Adelaide after their wedding is postponed for the umpeeeth time. “I still think I hate him – That’s love.”
Blair and Gillett try their best to make their characters’ chemistry convincing – an open-armed, evangelical approach to Sky makes his interest in sister Sarah seem natural, while a feistiness to the physicality of Sarah helps her fit into the gangster world. Nevertheless, despite some lovely singing, it is Nathan and Adelaide’s love that resonates stronger – in no small part because the Wrights (no relation) do no wrong.
Jenny L Wright’s Adelaide does not deviate from our expectations – she has the exaggerated accent and idiosyncratic pronunciation that provoke a laughter of recognition rather than surprise. But she also digs deep into the character and adds a growly, gravelly emphasis to certain of Adelaide’s lines that foreshadows who will win in the contest of guys versus dolls. Wright’s performance made me realize how, in a show obsessed with prescribing proper roles for men and women, Miss Adelaide is the only character who uses the gender-neutral – lamenting how, in response to romantic disappointment, “a person can develop a cold.”
While Adelaide and her back-up dancers burlesque female sexuality in Hot Box routines neatly choreographed by Parker Esse, the guys in Bradecki’s production simply come across as neutered. Blair’s Sky coos his lines coolly, but the rest of the gangsters squeak like mice, not men. They all wear cartoonish, boxy suits (designed by Sue LePage) that hide their bodies like colourful male burqas. There’s nothing threatening about them – even Aadin Church’s fleet-flooted Big Jule, the gun-carrying gangster from Chicago – but then I’m not sure there is supposed to be.
As Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Thom Allison delivers a joyous reading of Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat that is only missing one thing: an encore. And the show all takes place on an elegant black and white set, designed by Peter Hartwell to evoke slightly blurry photographs of the era.
Guys and Dolls delights, but will its success be something for Shaw cheer about? My Fair Lady and Ragtime have set records in the past two season, even as overall attendance has remained fairly flat. The festival must surely be hoping that ticket sales trickle down to the other productions in the season that actually are in the mandate and supposed to be the meat – otherwise, eventually, an unbalanced boat will rock over.