Review by Tyson Legg.
Guys and Dolls is a classic piece of musical theatre. Based on the short stories of Damon Runyon, it premiered on Broadway in 1950 and took home a swag of Tony Awards the following year. It has had countless revivals over the years and it regularly appears on the amateur theatre circuit thanks to its popularity and bankability. But instead of cashing in with a safe and familiar presentation of this audience favourite, MDMS have turned the piece on its head, revitalising this 'good ol' reliable' musical and presenting it in a way that is wholly unique. And for the most part, it works wonderfully.
Tyler Hess is to be congratulated for his interpretation and most importantly, his production design. Gone is the bright, colourful and cartoonish Guys and Dolls we are all accustomed to, and in it's place stands a dark, suave and almost noir design. It's Gatsby meets Chicago. The sins of the time are brought to the forefront, no longer presented in a carefree way. Gambling is dangerous, working at the Hot Box is not a glamorous source of fame and fortune, and sometimes the person we fall in love with is not without fault. It is a brave interpretation, one that could both alienate old and generate new fans of the original. Either way, Hess should be proud of what he has created. He mentions in his directors notes that “Non-professional theatre in Melbourne is the perfect forum for creativity and trialling new ideas…” and this production encapsulates that belief perfectly.
Completing the production team are the formidable talents of Craig Wiltshire as choreographer and Danny Forward as musical director. The choreography and its execution were standouts of this production. Wiltshire used the space cleverly and was able to build momentum perfectly throughout the more energetic numbers. The use of small dance interludes to bridge set changes was also a welcome touch. Special mention must go to the tap segments, which were executed exceptionally well. Surprisingly though, some of the more well known numbers fell slightly flat, with “Luck Be A Lady” and “Sit Down You're Rockin' The Boat” feeling under-choreographed. While it seemed “Rockin' The Boat” was under-choreogrpahed due to the complicated set design the cast had to work around, “Luck Be A Lady” featured a near empty stage and could not help but feel underwhelming after the incredibly entertaining “Crapshooters Ballet” that preceded it. Although, the Hot Box numbers were further proof of Wiltshire's expertise, each choreographed and performed flawlessly. Forward has produced an excellent sounding production. Under his baton, the orchestra performed with great musicality and the cast vocals were uniformly excellent. Most impressive were the seamless transitions between scenes and musical numbers, with dialogue leading straight into song almost imperceptibly.
Jason Bovaird's lighting design complimented Hess' vision completely. From the seediness of the Hot Box, to the reverence of the Holy Mission, to the sweatiness of Havana and the dankness of the sewer crap game, Bovaird gave each scene a wonderful sensory quality. A great success all round.
Set design by Jacob Battista and Tyler Hess is a fine example of a brilliant concept that was let down slightly in its execution. Framing the stage with giant letters which spelt out Guys and Dolls was initially an awe inspiring vision upon entering the theatre, but as the show went on and the letters themselves were constantly rotated and shifted to provide the setting of a particular scene, there was an undeniable sense of clutter and overcrowding. Not that they didn't have a purpose, as the rotate of each letter revealed a small element of scenery to help establish a location. Generally this was highly effective, but the problem of 'what do we do with the other letters?' was not always dealt with as successfully. This also created some problems with cast movement, as it was obvious at certain points that the cast had to be overly wary of their movements to avoid colliding with set pieces, and even taking a dive into the pit due to the amount stage space occupied.
Costume design by Hazel Green and Tyler Hess is a wonder to behold, for they were simply beautiful in design and construction. Green, Hess and their large team deserve special recognition for not just creating visually spectacular costumes, but also for the quantity that was created. Not one piece looked like a compromise or last minute rush job. And, most importantly, they effectively reinforced Hess' overall concept perfectly. Special mention to Candice Sweetman and Breanna Flower for the make-up and wigs. Especially effective was the pale faces and dark eyes on most of the performers, reminiscent of the silent-movie era.
Bringing the characters to life in this production was a group of highly accomplished performers. Jaclyn DeVincentis as Adelaide proves once again that there is not a role that she could not conquer, injecting Adelaide with a lovability that stems not just from her ditzy nature but from her warm heart as well. Paired with Harrison Wall as Nathan Detroit, these two performers steal the show, winning over the audience as their unconventional love story plays out. Clearly these two enjoy performing opposite each other, as their chemistry is genuine and they have a wonderful understanding of each other’s comic timing. Wall also holds his own when not sharing the stage with DeVincentis, and earns some great laughs from his interactions with his male co-performers, too.
Anthony Bolger uses his stunning voice to his advantage as Sky Masterson, and Jasmine Dare has a warm sincerity as Sarah Brown. These two characters are played more naturalistic to the rest of the characters, no doubt a directorial decision, and while it makes for some touching moments, their characterisations were lost in amongst their larger than life surroundings. This was especially true of Bolger who played Masterson so plain and wholesome that it makes no sense as to why a character like him would ever be mixed up with the Nathan Detroits of the world in the first place.
Rob Clark as Nicely Nicely performed his demanding showcase number, “Sit Down You're Rockin' The Boat”, with ease and confidence, providing great bursts of humour alongside his parnters-in-crime Scott Reid (Benny Southstreet) and Matt Hirst (Rusty Charlie). It was also a great pleasure to see a Melbourne theatre veteran like Dot Parker on stage. She commands the stage with her small but memorable role as Agnes Abernathy, no doubt aided by the wisdom that comes with experience.
While there were many great character performances, the one warranting the most praise was that of the ensemble. It is a rare treat to see an ensemble of such a high quality and a great deal of the success of this production lies in their hands. Their choreography was well executed, their chorus singing was impeccable and most importantly they all felt like individual people. A French gangster here, a promiscuous Hot Box dancer there… the stage was populated, not just filled with dancing bodies. It was a pleasure to see such thought and effort spent on minor role and ensemble characterisation.
Taking a risk in non-professional theatre should be more common. Why aren't there more productions like this? There are so many pieces of musical theatre that are ripe for this kind of reinvigoration we can only hope that Hess and his production team have opened the door for more experimentation. This interpretation has, like many others that will hopefully come after, exposed itself to possible criticism, and there are subjective flaws in the concept. For example, the original text remains largely intact, so the farcical nature of some exchanges feel very out of place in their new surroundings. Without utilising some of the more extreme elements of Sarah and Sky's characters, we no longer feel as drawn to their “opposites attract” story arc. Are we still able to find these characters loveable when we as an audience are treated to a heavily stylised yet no longer playful interpretation of this story? We are talking about murderous gangsters after all. And lastly, with so much emphasis placed on presenting a reenergised version of a classic, it is a shame that pace and effective time management were not more of a priority. While it is highly regarded, there is no doubt that Guys and Dolls runs much longer than is necessary, and requires careful attention paid to its pacing so as to not outstay its welcome. With such an ambitious set that required ample time to be moved, and some occasional cast overindulgence, this production fell victim to the same fate of many other attempts at Guys and Dolls before it… It was looooooooong. Luckily, we were in good company.
MDMS have presented a very memorable production of Guys and Dolls, one that will no doubt be a benchmark in Melbourne non-professional theatre for quite some time. The production team, Hess in particular, deserve great applause for the work they have done, for the cast they have assembled and most importantly for championing creativity and originality. Just because something is 'the way it's always been' does not mean it is the way it should be.