Nov 2, 2015 Theatre
Photo: Michael Smith
Who was the chump who said that Guys and Dolls was the greatest golden-age musical? I could raise you dozens of shows. The 1950 work, by Loesser, Runyon and Swirling, which has long been a mainstay of community musical societies, is a rather tired property. For every Luck be a Lady you have two ponderous ballads. The film is worth a look, if only for Marlon Brando mumble-methoding his way through the lyrics, and to see if you can catch the disdain Frank Sinatra held for his co-star for getting the bigger role. Reviving the show now for gives it somewhat of a “gee, look at those misogynistic 1950’s values” curiosity, but I bet you couldn’t convince me of its enduring relevance to today.
“Marilyn weds Joe Dimaggio” says the headline on the paper. We’re in the heart of Broadway, all the big players are in town and hustler Nathan Detroit (Shane Cortese) is looking for somewhere to host his Crap game (men throwing dice over and over again – the name is well chosen). Problem is, Detroit can’t afford the venue hire. So to raise the capital he makes a bet with notorious gambler Sky Masterson (Roy Snow) which Detroit thinks he can’t lose.
It’s the old high-school dare: bet you can’t make that doll go on a date with you to Havana. The target is missionary sister Sarah Brown (Rachel O’Connell), whose attempts at saving the sinners of New York has so far been a massive failure. Meanwhile, Detroit’s fiancé of 14-years, nightclub performer Miss Adelaide (Sophia Hawthorne) is growing impatient to set a date. You can guess the rest, unless you’re like my guest, who thought that Adelaide’s perpetual cold was setting up a climax of Moulin Rouge proportions. Now that would have been something.
The formula is easy to bag, but the good news here is the cast give us our money’s worth.
The formula is easy to bag, but the good news here is the cast give us our money’s worth. Cortese is a wise-cracking, fast-talking Detroit, ready to worm his way out anything. Cortese might be the one on the poster, but it is actually Roy Snow’s charmer Masterson that is the real star of the show. One of the odd things about Guys and Dolls is that the male leads are rather short-changed for songs, Detroit especially, and it’s Andrew Grainger’s Nicely-Nicely Johnson that gets some of the best bits, including Act Two barnstormer Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat.
Rachel O’Connell gives the most believable performance as Sister Brown, and her classic operatic vocals do the most to transport us back to the Golden Age. Sophia Hawthorne’s Miss Adelaide is less ditzy than the part’s usual characterisation, and all the stronger for it. In Adelaide’s Lament she explains her chronic cold using new-fangled psychology (from “stalling the Wedding trip, a person can develop La Grippe”), and Hawthorne also gets to deliver a series of great production numbers, with the performances at the Hot Box Club strategically placed to pad out the show.
The ensemble is incredibly well populated. David Aston is there as mission elder David Aston. Oliva Tennet, Amy Straker, and Anthea Hill do the work of a usually much larger chorus. Geoffrey Dolan is imposing as gangster Big Jule. Stephen Lovatt keeps the role of the perpetually just-too-late Lieutenant Brannigan interesting for himself by inventing a fitting swagger for the character.
Tracy Grant Lord’s set design gets the job done, though it’s not as inventive as we might normally expect. We’ve got a cityscape, a red revolving stage, and “Guys and Dolls” emblazoned in ruby red centre-stage, just in case we forget what we’re watching. Lord has gone to town on the costumes, they are gorgeous. Andrew Potvin’s colour co-ordinated lighting makes the whole picture pop. Under the musical direction of Robin Kelly, the band, hidden behind the cut-out skyscrapers, nail the big band sound. Jeremy Birchall’s choreography captures the silliness of all-singing, all-dancing gangsters.
While a return to the old-fashioned might come as a comfort to those who thought Hurst and Driver’s reinventions of Chicago and Superstar went too far, Raymond Hawthorne’s traditional Guys and Dolls does rather lack for the razzle dazzle of recent end-of-year musicals. It delivers as entertaining escapism, but it sure doesn’t rock the boat.
Guys and Dolls. Runs to 5th December. atc.co.nz