Have you ever wanted to dive into a black-and-white picture, walk around and see what life was like in the past in colour?
Director and choreographer Donna Feore's vivid new production of Guys and Dolls takes us on that journey in its opening moments – delivering, along with her design team, an opening image that's as memorable a coup de théâtre as you've ever seen at the Stratford Festival.
The visual energy never lets up in this fully realized version of Frank Loesser's classic of American musical comedy – which even in its 1950 premiere was, in a way, diving into an imagining of the past.
Though ostensibly set in what was then the present, it was based on the Prohibition-era stories and sanitized streetwise New Yorkers of writer Damon Runyon and was subtitled a "Fable of Broadway."
Nowadays, Guys and Dolls seems even more clearly to be a fable about mythological creatures known as "guys" and "dolls"– and, in Feore's highly stylized yet emotionally permeable production, the performance of gender is never far from the foreground.
These characters are always talking and singing about what they want and who they are as men and women (to each other or on stage at the Hot Box Club) – but love keeps drawing zigzag lines through their pin-striped ideologies.
Guys and Dolls, of course, follows a couple of heterosexual couples. The first are your archetypal opposites who attract: Sarah Brown (Alexis Gordon) runs the Save-a-Soul mission in the Broadway district, where she tries to save the souls of gamblers and drinkers; Sky Masterson (Evan Buliung) is a rye-drinking high roller who takes a bet for a thousand bucks that he can convince Sarah to go on a date to Havana with him.
The second is "good old reliable" craps-game organizer Nathan Detroit (Sean Arbuckle) and his fiancée of 14 years, Miss Adelaide (Blythe Wilson), a burlesque performer to whom he is neither terribly good nor ever reliable.
Buliung and Gordon have that chemistry that Sky talks about right off the bat – and deliver a truly swooning romance in short order, making their inner struggles to get past their own ideas of themselves seem the biggest obstacle to a more permanent pairing.
He's the most believable Sky I've ever seen – a recognizable portrait of the aging bachelor, rather the phony player of pop culture. She, meanwhile, is an utter delight in a role that seemed tailored to both her vulnerability-filled vibrato and swell comedic chops. Gordon amusingly plays with clichés of primness and is gung-ho in her physical comedy (especially in the tipsy tussle she gets into in Havana, one of several gloriously choreographed scenes that seems to swarm the stage like a flash mob).
Wilson is warm and open as Miss Adelaide, with a winning smile, and almost seems to reinvent the character as smart (if not intellectual), self-aware and, in her own way, more proper than Sarah. Arbuckle is the only one of the quartet of lovers who comes off at times as trying to inhabit a type as Nathan, pushing a little too hard on the Runyonese – though his love for his lady feels real.
A third couple, you might say, are Steve Ross and Mark Uhre, as the gambling gadabouts Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Benny Southstreet. Their vaudevillian double act could feel dated, but Ross inserts a series of sight gags that enliven his every entrance, while Uhre's flexible physicality make him ever so fun to watch.
If Feore's production has a flaw, it's that it's so crystal clear that you can see through Guys and Dolls's reputation as a timeless show to one smothered a little in an old style. There's a real set-up/punchline rhythm to Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows's book that can feel like a parody of humour now. Most of the laughter in this production actually comes from actors subverting the dad jokes slightly, through reactions to them and what sometimes seem like metatheatrical apologies for them.
The pop-culture references, meanwhile, are beginning to be difficult to penetrate. When Sky mocks Sarah by singing that she's looking for a "Scarsdale Galahad, a breakfast-eating, Brooks Brothers type," I found myself wondering: Did "guys" not eat breakfast back in the 1950s?
But, in a way, it's an illuminating question: If oatmeal once seemed effete, what aspects of the masculine and feminine today are constructed?
I'm not saying this is Guys and Dolls as if Judith Butler did it – but Feore's does seem fresh on gender matters. I've always found it odd that the musical culminates in a duet between the two main female characters who still haven't properly met at that moment, yet Marry the Man Today makes perfect sense here – almost a foreshadowing of the similarly placed, empowering friendship duet For Good in Wicked coming to Broadway 50 years down the line. The final scene that follows, meanwhile, feels like a fantasy extension of their plotting – or, perhaps, winks that the whole show has been one.