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REVIEW: Guys and Dolls

Tuesday, 22 July, 2014

Guys and Dolls is always such a satisfying production to watch, regardless of the context in which it takes place. What’s even more satisfying, however, is when a production company absolutely nails it.

The production company in question is The Production Company, which has opened its 16th season with Damon Runyon’s timeless classic at the Arts Centre. Aside from some of the 1950s gender stereotypes, there are few identifiable faults in this performance. Runyonland is as glorious as it was 60 years ago, with its city goers as loveable as they’ve ever been.

It’s easy to give Runyon all the glory for his dynamic New York ensemble of caricatures, but director Gale Edwards deserves some credit too for her casting decisions and faultless direction. The amusing Adam Murphy captures Nathan Detroit’s persona to a tee, balancing a perennial nervousness with lovesickness for Miss Adelaide (Chelsea Plemley). She, in return, is more than just a nasally high pitched voice. Her mood swings for and against Nathan take the audience on a journey, convincing us all through her emotional state to either love or hate the dishonest yet earnest gambling organiser. Few complaints can be levelled against Sarah Brown (Verity Hunt-Ballard) or Sky Masterson (Martin Crewes) either, although the latter sometimes doesn’t command the stage presence his character demands. Nevertheless, both Crewes and Hunt-Ballard are charming in their roles, while delivering faultless vocals.

Chelsea Plumley_ Adam Murphy

Across the board, the singing and musical accompaniment is first class. The leads and chorus alike perfect every song, tracing all the nuances and subtle harmonies of the original score. Combined with simple yet effective set design, costuming, and choreography, The Production Company’s incarnation takes you back to the 1950s, making you feel like you’re watching the musical as it always has been. The only giveaway is the electric keyboard visible in the orchestra, which performs from a platform elevated above the actors.

With this in mind, you could argue that The Production Company’s Guys and Dolls is a relatively risk-free performance. Directors who inherit the musical are probably advised time and time again not to meddle with a formula that works, and it’s solid advice. But there’s little that separates, say, this production from the umpteen other Guys and Dolls performances that have taken place over the past 60 or so years. Aside from a dice-shaped stage and a Zach Galifianakis lookalike (Michel Lindner as Angie the Ox), this is Guys and Dolls almost exactly as you’ve seen it before.

To most audiences – even those familiar with the show – this won’t matter. Crudely judging by the demographics of the opening night crowd, the show’s appeal lies in nostalgia, and being able to re-create a timeless piece of theatre. As a 23-year-old, I felt a little young sitting among this crowd. But even I felt nostalgic, thinking back to my involvement in my year nine production when I was cast as The Drunk (a character tragically cut from the latest version of the script).

That’s not to say this won’t appeal to young people with no prior exposure to Guys and Dolls. The jokes are still funny, the sexual innuendos still relevant, and the songs still catchy. Indeed, the relationship dynamics still seem funny today, even if things like floating crap games and women referred to as “dolls” seems a tad outdated.

Another appeal is the youthfulness of the cast; with the exception of Abernathy, General Cartwright, Big Jule, and Angie and Ox, nobody looks older than 35. The only thing that may disappoint youth is the absence of the “Guys and Dolls/we’re just a crazy bunch of Guys and Dolls” song by Mark Hamill. Indeed, it may come as a shock that this song was invented by The Simpsons, and that Runyon’s 1950 production included no references to Star Wars.

Recent pop culture aside, Guys and Dolls is a welcome blast from the past. But with its audience largely fighting grey hair, there’s no better time for young people to jump on the bandwagon and ensure the production has a lively future.