Review: Guys and Dolls – Harvest Rain Theatre Company at Concert Hall QPAC

Images: Nick Morrissey

Guys and Dolls – what an absolute cracker of a show. I’ve seen it live several times, watched the (1955) movie with Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando more times than is normal, and even played Miss Adelaide in my hometown’s local production. Needless to say I was thrilled to be headed to QPAC’s Concert Hall last Friday night for the opening of this play the first for Harvest Rain Theatre Company’s 2014 Season and also first full season as a professional musical theatre company.

The show is set in New York in the 1940s and most of the action takes place on and around Broadway (with a flying visit to Havana). The central plot of Guys and Dolls is a romance; it follows the story of gambler, lady’s man and ‘sinner’ Skye Masterson who, as a result of a misplaced bet, falls in love with Sarah Brown an earnest, uptight, Salvation Army missionary. The subplot includes another romance in a different key – that between Miss Adelaide a Broadway showgirl and another gambler, the hapless Nathan Detroit.

The show opened at the 46th street theatre in New York in 1950 and has enjoyed immense success ever since. The book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows is hilariously timeless, and the music/lyrics by Frank Loesser are an absolute delight. Revered classics such as Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat performed so joyfully in this production by Daryl Somers playing Nicely Nicely Johnson, and Luck Be a Lady are, of course, remarkable, but it is the lesser know numbers such as Sue Me, More I Cannot Wish You and Marry the Man Today that really show Loesser’s genius as a lyricist and composer. It’s a classic of the modern American musical theatre and is a great choice for Harvest Rain.

In this production, director Tim O’Connor and set and costume designer Josh McIntosh have reinterpreted the play with gusto and the show has the feeling of heightened farce. The production is bright and bold not only with design but also with character. Most major roles, and especially the ensemble were played at times like knockabout slapstick comedy. This directorial choice was well complemented by the costume design – bigger, brighter, bolder was definitely the feel of the evening. 10013244_723358234352467_1029323290_n

The orchestra, headed by Maitlohn Drew, plays with joyous punch. On opening night there was, at times, an incongruence between vocalists and the band and, unfortunately, some vocals were lost in the mix. Perhaps it was opening night jitters or maybe a sound balance issue.

Sophie Woodward leads the team as vocal director and there are some beautiful moments, although at times I felt the cast struggled stylistically; vocally, it’s a bit of a grab-bag. I have no issue with contemporary sounding vocals in classic shows – why not mix it up a bit – just so long as everyone is on the same page.

The two lead roles, gambler Sky Masterson and missionary Sarah Brown present a significant challenge. Their development individually and as a couple from indifference to love is swift – it is musical theatre after all – but it calls for a believable connection between the actors. Their chemistry must be absolute; it’s a tough call and Ian Stenlake and Angela Harding, both seasoned actors and vocalists just didn’t spark as a couple for me.

Liz Buchanan as Miss Adelaide sings wonderfully and plays with evident skill and an endearing warmth. Ms Buchanan is perfectly complemented by Wayne Scott Kermond as Nathan Detroit, her gambler fiancé with commitment issues. With a wonderful consistency of dialect, these two managed to bring energy and truth to their roles and play the slapstick with believability. Daryl Somers (who knew he could sing) surprises and delights as Nicely Nicely Johnson, and Belinda Heit’s fierce General Cartwright is both ridiculous and sublime. Steven Tandy brings a wonderfully familial warmth to Arvide Abernathie, and sings More I Cannot Wish You with a lovely connection to the text.

Guys and Dolls is lit by Jason Glenwright, whose work Brisbane theatre goers will be happily familiar with. I’ve always loved his style, but I did feel I wanted to see the dance ensemble more clearly in group numbers, especially the Hot Box ladies who were doing a fabulous job, choreographed skilfully by George Canham. In fact, the dancers throughout were wonderful, energetic and expressive, sailing through the lyrical jazz numbers, with a bit of tap thrown in for good measure (who knew Daryl Somers could tap!)

Guys and Dolls is playing at QPAC for an unfortunately short season, catch Harvest Rain’s closing performance of the classic musical, tonight at 8pm!