Guys and Dolls is a well-loved musical fable about Broadways underbelly of gamblers, gangsters and nightclubs – Guys who bet on anything and their Dolls who bet on love. This is a romantic comedy with two parallel love stories, a pantomime of colourful characters, sinners with hearts of gold and missionaries trying to save their souls.
Premiering on Broadway in 1950, the original production of Guys and Dolls ran for 1200 performances. The musical has had numerous New York and London revivals, and countless local productions, as well as a 1955 film adaptation starring Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra. Clearly this show is a well-liked choice among lovers of traditional musical theatre, and is a popular choice for Windmill Theatre Company, having staged it now three times since 1999.
The show started well with a New York street scape of flashing lights and a parade of local colour. I had high hopes for a vibrant and dynamic production breathing life into an old classic. The excellent band pumped great energy into the opening scenes rendering the quirky score with vitality and enthusiasm. Musical direction throughout the show, in the hands of Vicky Quinn, was well executed and helped drive the action. It provided a strong foundation for a great production and the consistently outstanding vocals and impeccable harmonies throughout are not only a testament to the abilities of the cast, but to Quinn’s hard work and endless talents. The band was highlighted particularly in numbers such as ‘Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat’ and ‘Luck be a Lady’.
These two numbers were the highpoints of the show, not only musically but in terms of development, character and staging. After a strong opening, Act One suffered from inconsistent staging choices and pacing issues, alongside what no doubt were some pesky opening night nerves, but as the show started to hit its stride in the second act with strong ensemble work, these numbers proved what was possible.
The male ensemble gave the show its backbone with well-defined characterisations and energetic, skilled dancing. Benny Southstreet and Nicely Nicely Johnston, played by Xavier Goring and Adam Kirk respectively, provided precisely delivered caricature and whip cracking comic timing. Other favourites include Rob Sale as Harry the Horse and Cameron Sweatman as Big Julie. Special mentions must go to Tim Blencowe, Ryan Turner, Michael Fertnig, Lachlan Nash, James Pellin and Garth Llewellyn for their commitment to their individual characterisations and dynamic dancing right throughout the show. Patt Ryan played gruff Lt Brannigan with focused energy and was particularly appealing during ‘Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat’. Missionary Arvide Abernathy was played with a quiet strength by Tony Baisman, who provided a lovely vocal with his song “More I Cannot Wish You”.
The four leading players all gave strong performances with impeccable vocals. Lizzie Matjacic as nightclub performer Miss Adelaide and Lauren McCormack as Missionary Sarah Brown stole the show with consistent high energy and measured performances, well defined characters and stage presence. Gamblers Nathan Detroit and Sky Masterson played by Sean van Geyzel and Scott Reid both did a sound job in their respective parts. Van Geyzel delivered a nuanced and likeable version of Nathan, and his relationship with Adelaide is temperamental but believable. Matjacic is wonderfully strong and vulnerable at the same time. Both Sarah and Sky transition as characters throughout the show and their journey is thoughtfully demonstrated. Particular highlights of each pair included dynamic chemistry between Nathan and Adelaide in ‘Sue Me’, and committed character development and comic timing between Sarah and Sky during ‘Havana’.
At the helm of this production was award winning director and performer Peter Roberts. He had a clear vision for the show, but direction was varying and often hampered by staging choices and pace. Characterisations, however, were well developed and are clearly a result of hard work and attention. Further attention needed to be given to the female ensemble in general, and to scene and musical transitions, but the high energy of the production and attention to detail in other areas cover many sins.
Choreography by Cassie Kirk was adequate throughout but had some serious spacing issues, no doubt caused by last minute changes to the staging or inadequate rehearsal in the space. This will progressively improve as the season continues.
Set design by Alberto Salvato was hit and miss with several problems created from staging choices that were clumsy and did not transition well. Where the street scape was quite vibrant with excellent set electrics, the design lacked options for smaller spaces and levels. The scenes in the Hot Box were un-workable and made it very difficult for the performers to transition from large dance numbers into more intimate songs and scene work. Highlights of the set design included the beautiful shell floor lights and ‘The Sewer’, with great levels and interesting dynamics for the performers to utilise. The design was further hampered by numerous technical problems, including several flys coming in and out at the wrong time and multiple lighting errors. Again, this will improve as the season progresses as hiccups are not unusual on opening night.
The costume plot is hugely diverse and demanding. Costume design by Glenda Novotny was quite good overall, but there were some inconsistencies in style and execution. Lighting design by Peter Amesbury was creative and colourful, but badly implemented in some scenes. Sound design by Steve Cooke had a few issues also, but improved as the show progressed.
It’s a huge challenge for any company to bump in such a large production – readjusting to a new space and completing the show in a very tight production week. The technical aspects of the show will no doubt continue to improve throughout the season.
Windmill Theatre Company are a hard working community institution in Melbourne’s South East and have provided theatrical entertainment for many years with ongoing success. The audience loved this fresh look at an old classic. With lively music and outstanding performances, make sure you don’t miss Guy and Dolls, it’s a bet you can’t lose!