Reviewed by James Karas
Energetic, precise, enjoyable, athletic, marvelous – these are the words that kept swirling in my head as I watched the Stratford Festival’s production of Guys and Dolls. Much of the credit goes to Donna Feore who directs and choreographs the production. It is this season’s big musical offering and it is done superbly.
The musical which opened in 1950 has won so many awards over the years that if it were a general and the awards were medals, his chest would have to be expanded several times over to make room for all of them.
The New York underworld of floating crap games, tough guys, crooks, a dizzy blonde, a beautiful and upstanding Salvation Army sergeant set in the streets of Manhattan, night clubs, gambling joints, a mission and Havana provide great latitude for humour, song and dance.
You know that Sky Masterson (Evan Buliung) bets that he can take Sergeant Sarah Brown of the Salvation Army to Cuba for dinner. And that Nathan Detroit (Sean Arbuckle) has been engaged to Miss Adelaide (Blythe Wilson) for 14 years. Her mother thinks that they have been married for years and have a bunch of children.
The two men have their problems with their women and we must work through them. There are other colourful characters like Big Julie (Beau Dixon) the nasty gambler from Chicago and Angie the Ox (Sayer Roberts), Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Steve Ross), Harry the Horse (Brad Rudy), Benny Southstreet (Mark Uhre) and Lt. Brannigan (John Kirkpatrick). You are better off imagining them than requiring further description.
The backbone of the musical and this production is the ensemble of gamblers and Hot Box dancers.
The singing by Buliung, Arbuckle, Wilson, Gordon and the others is good and we laugh at the jokes. But the energy and joy are produced by the ensemble performance. From Michael Gianfrancesco’s sets of the streets of New York to the opulent burlesque scenes to the extravagant costumes by Dana Osborne and the superb kaleidoscope of lighting by Michael Walton, we are treated to extraordinary production values.
Add Feore’s amazing choreography and the ensemble performances of the men and women and you get a built-up of energy that electrifies the audience. The miraculous relationship between stage and audience occurs that is so essential to a live performance and so thrilling when it happens.
What a show.
HMS Pinafore is done in the more intimate Avon Theatre and Savoyards will tell you that there are few more delicious evenings at the theatre than a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. From the first line of the Chorus who “sail the ocean blue,” to the love madrigals, to Sir Joseph’s patter song “I am the monarch of the see” to the joy and rapture and orb of love that bring serenity at the end, this is a work and a production to be relished.
Sir Joseph, the First Lord of the Admiralty who never went to see as played by Laurie Murdoch steals the show. He gets some of the most memorable tunes and comedy and Murdoch is splendid in the role.
Steve Ross is funny as Captain Corcoran, the commander of HMS Pinafore. He is Middle Crust and wants his pretty daughter Josephine (Jennifer Rider-Shaw) to marry the Upper Crust Sir Joseph. She is in love with the Lower Crust sailor Ralph (Mark Uhre) and you got the whole plot. But do pay attention to Little Buttercup because Lisa Horner is very entertaining as a bumboat woman and she (the character not Lisa) may provide a solution to the class issue.
Rider-Shaw has a beautiful voice that she uses to fine effect and Uhre’s Ralph sings well and deserves to get her no matter what his social niche.
There is a chorus of sailors and Sir Joseph’s sisters, cousins and aunts who sing the ensemble sings. The sailors can mop a deck and dance and sing something fierce.
Lezlie Wade takes care of the directorial details and Patrick Clark designed the costumes. Easy for the sailors and very beautiful for the ladies.
Wade and Set Designer Douglas Paraschuk have the operetta open with a picture of the exterior of the stately Portsmouth Manor and give some frantic activity in the interior of the grand house. Parts of the set is removed and we see the quarter-deck of the ship. Quiet impressive but the programme tells us that the manor-home is a naval hospital. I was enjoying the performance too much to get the hospital part.
Guys and Dolls by Frank Loesser (music and lyrics), Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows (book) based on a story and characters by Damon Runyon, opened on May 30 and will continue in repertory until October 29, 2017 at the Festival Theatre. HMS Pinafore by Gilbert and Sullivan opened on May 31 and will run until October 21 at the Avon Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca