Wellington Operatic Society’s production of ‘Guys and Dolls’ which opens for a week’s run at The Wellesley on Wednesday 10th May is a first for the company. The show – one of musical theatre’s classics – has never before featured in the company’s repertoire over the last 55 years.
There’s little doubt that the show presents a particular set of challenges. The music is jazzy, brassy and strictly syncopated; the characters are all larger-than-life, simplified and exaggerated versions of their real-life counterparts in 1920’s lower Manhattan that writer Damon Runyon knew and drew on for his short stories; the settings require the audience to be taken to New York’s much less glamorous haunts (including a sewer), to the tawdry glitz of seedy Havana and to a Mission Hall – and to travel between them effortlessly.
OpSoc’s production hits some very high notes – particularly in the performance of Caz Redstone as the beguiling, ditzy Miss Adelaide who manages to be both sexy and sweetly naive at the same time. Her study of the Hot Box girl’s hopeless devotion to the serial procrastinator Nathan Detroit is beyond good and in both visual and vocal characterisation a genuinely classy act. There have been some eye-catching performances from OpSoc’s stars over the years but this must rank alongside the very best. Caz’s Miss Adelaide is cute, innocently funny, silly, endearing, irritatingly shrill, overly optimistic – in dialogue (the scene where she confesses a series of fictions to deceive her mother is just delightful) and in her glorious vocal numbers.
Her ‘backing group’ of the Hot Box girls provide pitch-perfect prettiness, presenting both allure and purity in their song and dance routines. ‘A Bushel and a Peck’ and ‘Take Back Your Mink’, both choreographed by Charlie Redstone, are cheekily coy and saucy – and very well-drilled. They are also beautifully costumed as appealing, pink coquettes.
As Miss Adelaide’s earnest but slippery beau Nathan Detroit, John Skittell gives a strong performance, particularly when he makes use of a range of physical details to express the role’s various frustrations and agitations. Nathan’s scenes with Miss Adelaide make much of the character’s conflicts, run ragged between catering for the needs of his long-suffering fiancée and his low-life gang.
That ‘gang’ – the crapshooters – are a mixed bunch, some able to present caricatured dim-witted, greasy hustlers (Colin Marshall is a gum-chewing standout) and some less confident in their roles. Perhaps there is more work still to be done in terms of costuming but, fedoras apart, there seems to be an inconsistency in suit-style. In scenes when these differences are more muted by low lights and stage business – particularly in the scene where the ‘sinners’ attend the Mission to be ‘saved’ – the gang works as a unit and builds collectively to the important visual and vocal crescendos in ‘The Oldest Established’ and ‘Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat’.
As the other romantic pairing – gambler Sky Masterson and prim evangelical Sarah Brown – Sebastian Langkamer and Lizzie Harvey-Longley bring their accomplished, polished vocal skills to the roles and are at their best when delivering their solos. As a couple they have some fine moments when his suave charm and her earnest resistance are stressed – but they have some tricky times in the Havana scene when the demands of integrating dialogue, movement, business and musical timing are at their most taxing. Are they convincingly attracted to one another? Is Lizzie convincingly ‘intoxicated’ in Havana? Should she be ‘plainer’ rather than obviously made-up in the Mission scenes? Audiences will be better able to judge once the rough edges of the dress rehearsal are smoothed out – and they will both surely gain in confidence during the week.
There’s a delightful cameo introduced into the earnestly sincere Salvation Army when slow-moving Lesley Darlow follows the band – but at an ever-increasing distance.
Visually, the setting and lighting add much to the show. A series of backcloths convey the essential aspects of each location and ingenious ways of indicating the depths of the Manhattan sewer are found. The use of the curtain to hide some scene changes presents a few awkward moments and, with audiences now familiar with open stages, not wholly necessary but there’s undoubtedly drama in strong lighting effects once the tabs are open.
Nancy Powell-Brace’s direction maintains the pace of the show throughout and she brings a wealth of experience in drama and performance to this production. She has an equally experienced and willing team in support, particularly Musical Director Richard Lennox. His virtuosity and the strict tempo he maintains both at the keyboard and in galvanising his band impose an accentuated rhythm to the production as a whole. There’s lots of detailed musical moments to incorporate and, if tinkerings are still to be undertaken, they will happen before the curtain rises for the first time.
As ever, it’s worth paying tribute to the countless hours spent by the whole OpSoc company to bring their annual spring musical to the stage. Everyone involved has other commitments – but they all contribute their undoubted talents and unbounded enthusiasm for drama to this and every production. For these merits alone they more than deserve the applause that will be theirs this week, but even more will come from the appreciation of talents brought to the stage in this show.