BWW Review: GUYS AND DOLLS at the Stratford Festival is an Exhilarating Experience
The Stratford Festival's production of GUYS AND DOLLS opened on Tuesday night at the Festival Theatre and it is sure to be a hit. The performances, the glorious music, the set and lighting design, and the choreography all hit the right note and allow for a fantastic production to be enjoyed by all.
Directed and choreographed by Donna Feore, this production of GUYS AND DOLLS feels fresh and exciting-and this can be hard to do with a Musical that contains themes and dialogue with dated gender stereotypes. There was an audible gasp in the audience during the opening Overture when the stage went dark and then the lights came back on and all signage and costumes were gorgeous neon colours. If there was any doubt that this was going to be something special, it was squashed in this moment of pure perfection made possible by Set Designer Michael Gianfrancesco, Costume Designer Dana Osborne, and Lighting Designer Michael Walton. The fast paced and engaging direction/choreography in this opening vignette also puts Donna Feore's genius on full display from the get-go.
As gorgeous as the design and choreography are, this show would not work without a stellar ensemble. Feore has assembled some incredible talent. Each of the four leads brings a unique set of strengths to the production. As seasoned gambler, Sky Masterson, Evan Buliung has a commanding presence whenever he takes the stage. Mr. Buliung has turned in some brilliant performances in a variety of Shakespearean productions and other straight plays at the Festival, but aside from a smaller part in CAROUSEL a couple years ago, Mr. Buliung is not known for his musical stylings. Those unfamiliar with his past body of work will likely be surprised to hear this though, because not only does he fit right in, but he in fact shines. As the pure, but tenacious Save-a-Soul Mission Sergeant Sarah Brown, Alexis Gordon is delightfully charming. Her powerful and beautiful soprano singing voice is on full display, as is her comedic timing during the Havana scenes and her duet with Miss Adelaide (Blythe Wilson).
The other two leads are an equally delicious pair. Blythe Wilson is a revelation as Miss Adelaide. From the start of every number that she is in, she has the audience in the palm of her hand-to the point where she somehow had someone in the audience sneezing during Adelaide's Lament (in which Adelaide believes her own sniffles are the result of her current relationship status). Some might call this a coincidence, but Ms. Wilson's performance is so magical that it is honestly rather fitting that she have such an effect. Sean Arbuckle has excellent chemistry with Ms. Wilson as crap game promoter Nathan Detroit-Adelaide's fiancé of 14 years. His energy and comedic timing are fantastic and his singing voice is grand. The character's New York accent did seem a tad inconsistent at times, but he made the performance his own.
Steve Ross as Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Mark Uhre as Benny Southstreet are also real standouts. Their duet of Guys and Dolls is hysterical. Another standout is Laurie Murdoch as Sarah's grandfather Arvide Abernathy. His performance of More I Cannot Wish will bring a tear to your eye. His understated humour is also a delight.
The spectacular ensemble of this production must also be mentioned. The talent on that stage never ceases to amaze me, but I am hard pressed to recall a dance number more incredible than The Crapshooter's Dance. I am not being hyperbolic when I say that this show-stopping (literally) number alone is worth the price of your ticket. A special acknowledgement must be made for Devon Michael Brown who backflips his way into the audience's hearts. This is not to detract from the fabulous female performers who may not be in that particular number, but who certainly shine in the numbers performed with Adelaide in the 'Hot Box Club'. The entire ensemble is nothing short of incredible.
The last ingredient that makes this production work so well, is Ms. Feore's clear awareness of which parts of this classic musical work, and which should be slightly re-worked for a modern audience. For example, this is a given, but the music works. There are recognizable songs, clever lyrics, and beautiful orchestrations performed by a live in house orchestra with musical direction by Laura Burton (who shows off her own dance moves at the curtain call!) One thing that does not always work in a production of GUYS AND DOLLS is the scene in which Skye takes Sarah dancing in Havana and orders her some alcoholic beverages against her knowledge. This scene has been slightly reworked with minor dialogue changes and choreography and direction that make it clear that Sarah maintains her agency throughout. The scene is still a tricky one, but it is clear that the direction is very intentional.
Taking in a performance of GUYS AND DOLLS will be one of the most exhilarating experiences for Stratford Festival audiences this summer. Get your tickets.
GUYS IN DOLLS runs in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 29th.
Photo Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann.