Wednesday 8 August 2018

Guys and Dolls is an updated fable of old NYC's demi-monde 
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : It takes a wee kind of courage in 2018 to mount a show with the title Guys and Dolls, as in "gangsters and molls". Probably no more or less these days than trying to sell Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew as relevant and timely social commentary.

But in the hands of Fighting Chance Productions, this award-winning 1950 Frank Loesser song-&-dance showcase overall delivers the goods sharply and smartly. Subtitled "A Musical Fable of Broadway", it's a soft-edge look at tough guy Damon Runyon's Depression-era NYC demi-monde with its slummy roving illegal crap shoots and hot boxes (burlesque & booze havens). Which were offset, often, by soul-saving do-gooders who love parades and cornets and tambourines and true confessions to Jesus. But fail to find many converts to their cause.

Sergeant Sarah Brown & troupe try to save the gamblers and wicked fellow travellers from themselves. They find it is quite a futile proposition. 
Photo credit Jennifer Surato.
At the time Brit theatre critic Kenneth Tynan called G&D America's second-best play, just behind Death of a Salesman. Myth, legend, fabrication -- G&D's New York hustlers and grifters and show folk get a grip from the opening chart "Fugue for Tinhorns" and don't let go. Meanwhile director Jennifer Suratos makes the FCP outing just that much more contemporary by casting a Sally Ann General and a slightly-corrupt police lieutenant as women, along with a couple of the die-hard gamblers who do double duty as men/women.  

How it's all put together : Fans of FCP know how Artistic Director Ryan Mooney's raison d'etre is to give the region's rising young drama school talents an outlet to show off their chops. G&D features four current Cap College theatre students plus five grads from its storied program. Their enthusiasm and talent augur well for fast and furious futures on the country's professional theatre stages.

Most folks, thanks to t.v. re-runs, have seen the 1955 movie version. (In it Frank Sinatra's "Luck Be A Lady" with its classic line "A lady doesn't wander all over the room / And blow on some other guy's dice" is perhaps his true signature song, Frank being Frank.) He played gambler Sky Masterson. Sky bets he can seduce Sally Ann Sergeant Sarah Brown away to Havana. She, meanwhile, is trying desperately to keep her Save-A-Soul Mission doors open but needs prospective converts to do that. "Tear up your poker deck of cards and play no more / Follow, follow the fold" she urges these Times Square sinners : be sheep, not hustlers! 

As counterpoint to Sky and Sarah, there's floating crap game perpetual organizer Nathan Detroit. He and burlesque headliner Miss Adelaide from the Hot Box Club (sic) have been engaged for 14 years, but he's too busy trying to find crap-shoot game sites to pay much mind. She has a perpetual psychosomatic cold he's so cool to the idea of settling down. Eventually these story lines intersect and, as one would expect to find happen, all's well that ends well.

Production values that hi-lite the script : This show, primarily, is all about the imaginative and engaging choreography by Rachel Grace Carlson, assisted by Amanda Lau. Two numbers particularly were simply superb in design and execution : the extended "Luck Be A Lady" routines, then the show's famous conversion sequence "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" led by Argel Monte De Ramos as the animated Nicely-Nicely Johnson. In both numbers there were strong hints of the kind of inspiration Valerie Easton brings to every show she touches. And that is high praise, well-deserved.

There ain't no more promising converts than a bunch of crap-shoot junkies who've bet $1,000 on their lost souls. 
Photo credit Jennifer Surato.
Costume maven Amara Anderson revealed not only imagination and insight into the worlds of burlesque meets gambling fools, dolls vs. guys. No, often it is said the show seems to feature the men. But Ms. Anderson re-boots and refreshes that app completely : both the Farmalettes denim bib shorts routine to kick things off and the "Take Back Your Mink" strip scene in the second act were just plain jaunty and fun while the men's duds were more stereotypical off-the-shelf throughout.

Chris Hall's spare -- nay, stingy -- set gave ample room for the choreography and the costuming to strut their stuff. But the visually dead air space left the eye feeling cheated, as if this were a church basement rendering rather than what one would expect from a Vancouver Waterfront Theatre show by this highly regarded theatre company. More curious than distracting, and certainly no reason to stay away, not at all.

Acting pin-spots : The team of Charlie Deagnon as crap-shoot hustler Nathan Detroit and his forlorn love of 14 years Mandy Rushton as Miss Adelaide gave the show the "chemistry" the script so often talks about. Aided strikingly by Colton Fyfe as the mouthy gangster Benny Southstreet and Mr. De Ramos as Nicely.

Lead Ranae Miller as Sarah Brown has strong soprano pipes and nimble feet, particularly in her "Marry The Man Today" duet dance with Miss Adelaide. While of rich voice, Scott McGowan as Sky Masterston was to this eye too rooted afoot and of somewhat modest, too-static gesticulation to keep apace with the others.

For her part, pole dancer Sari Rosofsky was a choice piece of work, particularly her futzy hand fiddles never mind her pole prowess. Johanna Goosen's Irish brogue as the cop Brannigan on opening night was tut-tut-y fun stuff.

Who gonna like : If you like Frank Loesser's clever music and lyrics. If Abe Burrows' witty dialogue is up your alley, e.g. Miss Adelaide to the dolt Nathan : "I kinda like it when you don't give me presents. It makes me feel like we're married already." If the notion of "guys" and "dolls" -- the Mars vs. Venus stuff put to music -- doesn't make you gag. If you subscribe to Albert Einstein's brilliant theory that "Men marry women with the hope they will never change. Women marry men with the hope they will change. Invariably they are both disappointed."

Given your response to the above "if's", this show has spunk, sprightly dance, obvious talent both in voice and afoot. Yet another showcase of local up-&-comers from our universities that is cause for celebration and rejoicing. 

Particulars : Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser.  Book by Abe Burrows (with Jo Swerling). Based on stories and characters by Damon Runyon.  Produced by Fighting Chance Productions. On at Granville Island's Waterfront Theatre until August 25th, 1412 Cartwright Street. Run-time two hours and twenty minutes. Tickets and schedule informationFCP website.

Production crew : Director Jennifer Suratos. Musical Director Marquis Byrd.  Choreographers Rachael Grace Carlson and Amanda Lau. Stage Manager Kelsey Torok.  Set and Lighting Designer Chris Hall. Costume Designer Amara Anderson.  
Assistant Director Emily Bordignon.  Assistant Stage Manager Sarissa Chew. 

Band : Marquis Byrd (Music Director / Piano). Jazz Palley (Bass). RJ Abella (Trumpet). Mithun Michael Bagchi (Drums). Ardeshir Puerkeramati (Reeds).

Performers : Charlie Deagnon (Nathan Detroit).  Argel Monte De Ramos (Nicely-Nicely Johnson).  Scott McGowan (Sky Masterson).  Ranae Miller (Sarah Brown).  Mandy Rushton (Miss Adelaide). 

Featured gangsters, gamblers, molls, cops and hustlers : Simon Abraham (Angie the Ox). Haley Allen (Dance Captain, Hot Box Club dancer, crapshooter). Thomas Chan (Calvin). Colton Fyfe (Benny Southstreet). Johanna Goosen (Brannigan). Jake Hildebrand (Harry the Horse). Caitlin Hill (Joey Biltmore, Hot Box Club dancer). Danica Kobayashi (Hot Box Club dancer). Kate Krynowsky (Agatha). Jason Lam (Rusty Charlie). Jennifer Long (Brannigan). Erin Matchette (General Matilda B. Cartwright). Vanessa Quarinto (Hot Box Club dancer / Havana dancer). Isidro Rodriquez (Big Jule). Sari Rosofsky (Hot Box Club dancer, crapshooter). Amanda Russel (Hot Box Club dancer). Stephen Street (Arvide Abernathy). 

Addendum : Director Jennifer Suratos' Notes -- from the program.

Chemistry. It's a word that comes up a number of times in Guys and Dolls. High roller Sky Masterson uses the terms to describe the spark he imagines at meeting the woman he loves. Straight-laced missionary Sarah Brown attempts to conduct a chemistry lesson of her own, after enjoying one too many Dulce de Leches. And it is chemistry, I believe, that is the reason behind the success of this Broadway classic.

Start with a couple of short stories by Damon Runyon, add an award-winning book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, and ignite the flame with composer Frank Loesser, and the result is the Tony Award-winning Guys and Dolls. The spark continues with the iconic 1955 film adaptation starring Jean Simmons and Vivian Blaine, and is reignited again and again with successful revivals on Broadway, in London's West End, and beyond.

It's easy to focus on the crapshooter in Guys and Dolls : they're quirky, charming, and a little bit dangerous. And while it could be seen as a show that mainly highlights the men, the gender balance is, in fact, equal. The story is infused with strong feamle characters, most notably with real-life Salvation Army Sergeant Rheba Crawford, the "Angel of Broadway", who was the inspiration behind Sarah Brown. I sought to further equalize the balance between men and women by hinting at other historical figures from the 1930's. Our Brannigan finds roots in Mary "Dead Shot" Shanley, the first policewoman in the NYPD to use a gun during an arrest. Our Joey Biltmore [Caitlin Hill] pays tribute to real-life mob bosses like Stephanie "Queenie" St. Clair, who ran a successful numbers racket in Harlem. Our female crapshooters are eminiscent of Bonnie Parker, of the infamous duo Bonnie and Clyde. Our Hot Box girls find inspiration in the bold, athletic pole dancers, who moved from circus sideshows to dance the hoochie coochie on main stages.

Sometimes, however, a doll is nothing without her guy. And while gambling is central to the storyline, love becomes the ultimate risk. When the stakes are this high, you need a bit of chemsitry and a lot of luck. As Sky says, "Life is one big crap game." Here's hoping you're not playing with loaded dice.

I have so enjoyed directing this iconic piece of musical theatre. I hope you enjoy it too.


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