Sunday afternoon in the theatre with a friend ... and musical theatre at that ... a perfect way to end the weekend. Last weekend saw me at the Schonell Theatre for Blue Fish Theatrical Productions' latest, the fabulous Guys and Dolls (music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows). It's directed for the company by debutant-director Lindsay Fletcher.
Blue Fish is a relatively new, Brisbane-based company dedicated to musical theatre. It has professional aspirations, and is still establishing itself, so I was also keen to get a sense of the kind and quality of work they are doing. I was unable to see Spamalot or Jekyll and Hyde their two previous productions.
As to their vision for themselves, Blue Fish have a manifesto expressed in a programme message and online from the Producer - they don't appear to have an Artistic Director - at least there is no credit for one. What does come shining through are their pride in Brisbane and its talent and their ambition - they aim to be 'Brisbane's answer to The Production Company in Melbourne.'
As the note puts it, Blue Fish are aiming 'to open up pathways for excellence in the production and the quality of musical theatre works.' They seek to do this by focussing on 'intense rehearsal periods for short seasons of highly-regarded Broadway Book Musicals,' and in doing so want to contribute to 'the professional and independent theatrical landscape within Brisbane.' Good on them, say I.
Guys and Dolls, based on short stories by Damon Runyon, is an almost comic-book romance which focusses on two unlikely couples seeking love: Nathan Detroit and Sky Masterson are a couple of gamblers, and Miss Adelaide (a night-club singer) and Sarah Brown (a missionary) are the respective objects of their affection. A slew of street types from a mythical post-WWII New York make their appearances throughout the show. It's an almost perfect musical and an example of some of Broadway's best music and lyrics. Guys and Dolls has been revived on Broadway several times and has taken out 10 Tony Awards over the years, since its first production in 1951. It's also been filmed. TIME magazine called it, 'the perfect American musical.' It's a favourite, for sure, and why not? The music is gorgeous and the lyrics witty, snappy, and delightful.
The musical direction for this production and the action in the pit was most impressive: Julie Whiting (Musical Director) gets a great sound from her musicians and singers. It's always hard to pick a favourite, but in this production I very much enjoyed the gem, 'Sue Me' sung and played with spot-on gusto by Miranda Selwood (Miss Adelaide) and Jason Lawson (Nathan Detroit). Coming a very close second was the lovely 'More I Cannot Wish You' sung by Doug Rumble (Arvide Abernathy).
When it came to performance, the female company of actors and dancers were, on the whole, stronger than the males. Ms Selwood and Melissa Scheele (Sarah Brown) are talents to follow; I look forward to seeing their work in the future. Please, though, Mr Sound Guy, can you turn the volume down a tad when these girls sing; the can belt with the best of them! We're used to vocal enhancement in musical theatre, but their songs didn't need the amount you gave them and, at times, this verged on distortion.
Set mostly in NYC with a quick flight down and back to Havana, Cuba for some nightclub action and romancing Guys and Dolls' action is played out across a number of interior and exterior locations: streets on and off-Broadway; Sarah's Save a Soul Mission; nightclubs, and so on. With 17 individual scenes chock full of musical numbers the challenge for the design team is to create a flexible set with the capacity to move location and cast quickly and easily from one to another.
Blue Fish's production clocked in at 3 hours; this is just too long. I know these Golden Oldie musicals generally run much longer than contemporary shows, but I couldn't help but feel the pace of this production slowed things down. A few more cross fades from one scene to another, shortening some of the crowd scenes or dance sequences would have made things much sharper - anything that doesn't move the action along should always get the chop first, imho. Within individual scenes, lighting was a problem from time to time. Those which worked the best were well lit and isolated on the stage - in other words - were focussed. Ones that didn't sprawled across the stage, were under-lit or hit the wrong targets.
As a period piece, the production's overall look is critical to the success of the design. Set, costumes, hairstyles, and props don't need to be elaborate, but they should be consistent and of the era. Whilst the design of this production went a good way towards achieving an overall look for the piece, some of details were lost; haircuts for the men, hairstyles for the women. The devil's in the detail, and a sharper eye could have fixed it. Did men wear hats inside back then? Just asking ...
Blue Fish notes that they value professionalism and artists 'who have attained international exposure,' as well as the wealth of local talent in the city and throughout the state. If they are prepared to commit to the independent, pro-am theatre road and remunerate artists and creatives, then I would strongly suggest that they give consideration to hiring experience and mentoring in key roles for future productions, and especially in the roles of Direction and Design. Learning on the job under the direction of an experienced professional and one who understands the brief is a recipe for success.
This new company are to be congratulated for their aspirations and for galvanizing their 'people power ... passion and respect for musical theatre.' It has driven them thus far through two 'high-budget and large-scale musical theatre productions' during the past 12 months. This is no small achievement, but they have a way to go before they will be Brisbane's answer to The Production Company in Melbourne. It has to do not with passion or ambition or talent - which they have - but with a commitment to development and to raising the bar. Forget Melbourne's Production Company; they should aim to be the best Blue Fish can be.
Guys and Dolls is directed by Lindsay Fletcher, with musical direction by Julie Whiting for Blue Fish Theatrical Productions. The season continues at the Schonell Theatre, Brisbane until August 6th. Details from the company website.
You may like to Like Blue Fish Theatrical Productions of their Facebook page. I see they are holding open auditions soon for their next production, The Producers.