Review by Suzanne Tate
The Antipodes Theatre Company’s production of Guys & Dolls: A Musical Fable of Broadway at Chapel off Chapel is a refreshing new take on a classic from the Golden Age of Musical Theatre. To begin with, the casting exemplifies Antipodes core value of inclusive hiring and support for marginalised communities who are not well represented on stage. They have committed to fulfilling at least 50% of their hiring/casting needs with “women, ethnically diverse artists, people with disability, trans and non-binary people, seniors and other members of historically or culturally marginalised communities”. This policy is not only admirable from a social justice perspective but is of great benefit to the audience, allowing for the inclusion of performers with significant talent who many not traditionally have been considered for certain roles. In Guys & Dolls this has resulted in a spectacularly talented cast and a performance that opens the audience’s mind to appreciate a new interpretation of a well-loved classic show. Without any changes to the script or lyrics, and preserving the context of the prohibition era setting, the show is presented in a modern and inclusive format. Small details, such as Arvide Abernathy, played by Michael Lindner (who was also in the 1986 version in Melbourne), being initially more smitten with the character of Sky Masterson than is his granddaughter Sarah, was played with humour, but also made the characters relatable to a wider audience.
Javon King played Masterson with a great range and depth. The character of Masterson was strong and charming, respected by all, and able to both physically subdue a much larger, threatening man, and carry off wearing subtle makeup and long strand of pearls with his traditionally masculine attire. King’s vocal talent was also impressive, and combined beautifully with Maddison Coleman’s stunning soprano, as Sarah Brown. Brown’s performance was nuanced and versatile. Her portrayal of the strait-laced missionary drunk on Cuban rum cocktails was hilarious without becoming a caricature, and the more serious moments were emotionally rich and highlighted by her beautiful and powerful vocals. Overall, the cast was impressive for both acting and vocal performance. Shannon Foley as Nathan Detroit was flawlessly consistent, and Willow Sizer as Miss Adelaide was a highlight of the show. Sizer showed great versatility as the lead performer at the Hot Box, performing several of the show’s most famous numbers and convincingly portraying all aspects of the emotional rollercoaster that their character embarked upon. Bugs Baschera brought a contagious positive energy to the role of Nicely Nicely Johnson, with my only concern being a lack of vocal strength during ‘Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat’. It seemed to not sit comfortably within their vocal range, and I wonder if adjusting the key would have assisted. As one of the most recognisable numbers in the show, I missed the vocal strength I was used to associating with that song, such as Ricky May’s performance in the 1986 show in Melbourne.
It was great to see a range of body types represented throughout the cast, including the dancers. The choreography, designed by Carolyn Ool was innovative and made great use of the limited space on stage. The choreography was used to great effect to capture the mood in scenes such as the bar in Havana, without relying on clearly identifiable Cuban dance moves, and the drama in the underground craps game in the sewer, among others, and the performances of the Hot Box dancers were entertaining and thematically relevant.
The stage was quite small, especially considering the band being set on stage, and space needed for the movable bar. Despite these constraints, and scenes with considerable movement required, including detailed choreography, the cast never seemed overcrowded or in each other’s way. The stage direction was extremely effective, managing the limited space smoothly. The effective use of the space was also highlighted by clever lighting and sound, such as dimming to table lamps in the bar during more intimate scenes, using handheld flashlights during the sewer scene to great effect, and using subtle audio effect to highlight a character talking on the telephone. There were some minimal technical issues with the sound in the first act, but they were resolved as the show progressed, and were not highly obvious.
The context of the prohibition era New York was consistently maintained through the cast’s effective use of accents, which were consistent and convincing, and the hair styles, which were generally very relevant for the period. The costumes were less consistently contextual, particularly with the Hot Box dancers, but exceptions to period dress often supported the inclusive and gender flexible approach.
I have loved Guys & Dolls since I was a child. I remember watching the movie starring Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra and Jean Simmonds when I was very young, and it was the second musical I ever performed in, in high school. It holds a special place in my heart, and this performance was an excellent addition to my memories of this much-loved show. Guys & Dolls is only on for a short season, so I strongly suggest making a beeline for Chapel off Chapel before the 19th!
For tickets: https://chapeloffchapel.com.au/show/guys-dolls/