Theatre Review: Guys and Dolls (Shaw Festival)

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Guys and Dolls is classic Broadway musical: people bursting into song for no particular reason, tremendous energy, big show-stopping numbers and enough heartwarming moments scattered throughout to give everything some weight. Experts in the satirical wit of Oscar Wilde, the Shaw Festival knows a a lot about balancing the light with the heavy, and their take on Guys mostly hits the sweet spot.

The brightest star is Jenny L. Wright as Miss Adelaide, 14-year fiancé to longtime gambling organizer Nathan Detroit (Shawn Wright). She nails the nasal Brooklyn accent (where “cold” becomes “co-wuld”) and affecting angst that comes from wanting nothing more than to have a ring on her finger already. She owns the stage in her solo number, “Adelaide’s Lament”, one of the few performers with such individual presence in this production. At many points throughout the show, I was struck by how big the stage was; except during the big numbers with a lot of hustle and bustle, the actors were often dwarfed by their surroundings. Not so with Jenny Wright.

The cast at large knows how to deliver on the biggest numbers: “Luck be a Lady”, “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” and “Havana/If I Were a Bell” are all wonderful and highly entertaining with fun choreography. Elodie Gillett as Sergeant Sarah Brown does a nice switch from uptight to drunk and back again. It’s the secondary male characters who don’t quite carry the load. The opening number with Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Thom Allison), Benny Southstreet (Billy Lake) and Rusty Charlie (Kelly Wong) just doesn’t have the energy it needs to propel the show forward, and again I was struck by how large the stage was during Allison and Lake’s “Guys and Dolls” midway through act one.

Also on the note of staging, I have to wonder at set designer Peter Hartwell’s decision to make Broadway so monochromatic. The characters’ colourful costumes certainly stand out against the black and white marquees, but drained of colour, New York itself seems to fight against what life the actors can bring to its streets. Perhaps that’s why “Havana” and “Bell” were so successful; suddenly, the stage was awash in yellows, blues  and reds that enhanced the action and choreography. Back on Broadway for “My Time of Day”, and all of a sudden Sarah and Sky Masterson (Kyle Blair) just didn’t have the same impact.

Shaw has put on an overall an enjoyable, faithful rendition of a Broadway staple, sure to be one of their best sellers this 2013 season.

4 out of 5 floating craps games.

~Mike!

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