Stratford Festival’s production of Guys and Dolls is one of those productions that I could talk about endlessly. From the set, to the lighting, to the costumes, to the dance numbers, to the individual performances, you’ve just got to see it to understand how truly spectacular this production is.
The musical Guys & Dolls tells the story of Nathan Detroit (Sean Arbuckle), as he struggles to find a new secret location for his infamous craps game. The only option left for Nathan comes with a hefty $1,000 price tag Nathan can’t afford. In comes Sky Masterson (Evan Buliung), well-known for making crazy bets. Nathan bets Sky $1,000 that he can’t take a doll of Nathan’s choosing to Havana with him and Sky bets Nathan that he can. Nathan chooses Sarah Brown (Alexis Gordon), the determined leader of the Save-A-Soul Mission and Sky gets to work trying to win over Sarah. All the while, Nathan’s own doll Adelaide (Blythe Wilson) continues trying to convince Nathan to finally marry her; after all, they’ve been engaged for 14 years.
Directed and choreographed by Donna Feore, this production captures your attention from the moment you walk into the theatre. The Festival Theatre’s stage is given an industrial makeover complete with metal facades, brick storefronts and blinking marquee signs promoting “Burlesque Beauties,” “Orpheum Dance Palace” and, of course, the “Hot Box Club.” Initially the signs light up with a white light against the black text and frames, but after the incredible opening scene, the signs shine with almost every colour of the rainbow. Keep an eye on these signs as the backlight colours change throughout the performance to match the various settings. The “Most Beautiful Girls” sign in the centre of the top level is spun around during the mission scenes to reveal a cross with the phrase “Sin will find you out.”
The stage floor, as well as the right and left wings are painted like a giant street map of New York with Pen Station and Grand Central Terminal clearly marked among the crisscrossing lines and various street names. Aside from the map markings, the stage is left relatively bare so expertly-crafted set pieces can easily be brought onto the stage as needed. A lot of the larger pieces, like Nathan’s newsstand or the Havana replica bar, are positioned in the upstage centre entrance, leaving lots of room for the dance numbers.
Feore’s choreography delivers some of the best dance numbers I’ve ever seen. The commotion of the opening number is beautifully executed and the “Havana” number is energetic with couples moving perfectly in sync with each other throughout endless spins. But it’s “The Craphshooters’ Dance” that I can’t stop thinking about. Not only is the underground sewer setting perfect with the brick and pipe facades and smoke billowing about, but the flips, tricks, and quick footwork of the gamblers is incredible.
This production features a wildly talented cast. Arbuckle’s Nathan, Mark Uhre’s Benny Southstreet and Steve Ross’s Nicely-Nicely Johnson make a hilarious trio of wisecracking, scheming friends. Nicely is one of my favourite characters and Ross is wonderful in the role, bumbling around a bit and always snacking on something.
Wilson is captivating as Adelaide with her bouncy, upbeat demeanour and slightly nasally accent. Her chemistry with Arbuckle is palpable and their rendition of “Sue Me” was a high point for me. Arbuckle’s hilarious groveling and Wilson’s fiery delivery perfectly contrasted with each other.
Buliung and Gordon gave strong performances as Sky and Sarah, respectively. Buliung exudes Sky’s confidence with ease and commands attention every time he steps on stage. Gordon gives a lovely performance of Sarah, balancing her reserved upbringing and sweet nature.
There are so many more aspects I could rave about, but I really think you should go see it for yourself!
Guys and Dolls is playing at the Festival Theatre until Oct. 29. Tickets can be purchased online at stratfordfestival.ca.