Guys and Dolls Review (QPAC, Brisbane)

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I’ll go out on a limb to say that this is the second-best musical of all time, next to Sondheim’s Into the Woods, of course. And after almost 65 years it hasn’t lost any of its toe-tapping sing-along cheeky magic, or the unfailing appeal of its message, even if you can’t believe that a girl can “marry the man today and change him subsequently”. It just doesn’t work like that, but maybe in the 1950s the sentiment was a little more hopeful.
A master gambler converting to drum-banging street evangelism? A floating crap-game entrepreneur choosing stay-at-home domestication with an ex-night club singer? Aw shucks, what are musicals for if not a bit of escapist fantasy?
Maybe the best way to play this musical these days is with a touch of irony, but Tim O’Connor for Harvest Rain Theatre Company has gone down a different path, playing it for loud comic-book laughs. Josh McIntosh’s costumes for the guys are primary-school outrageous, with impossibly ugly over-sized suits for the crapshooters in garish paint-box colours. The wigs are equally improbable, and I’m surprised that some of them didn’t fall off, but on the whole the girls’ costumes struck the right note, suitably over the top without being ridiculous. And the chorus line of the show girls at the Hotbox are dressed as impressively as in any bigger production, and sing and dance with aplomb, as far as I could see on the crowded dark stage (not one of Jason Glenwright’s better lighting designs).
Harvest Rain began life over 28 years ago as a small amateur church-based company with strictly family-oriented values, but since they were moved (or asked to leave) the church premises in Sydney Street, New Farm, they have moved on from plays with a strong Christian content to embrace shows like The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Elephant Man and Urinetown. Some of these were better than others, but under the direction of Tim O’Connor, the company has gradually decided to skip the overt moral message shows and stick to musicals, which they do very well indeed, to the extent that they are have just become the only fully professional music theatre company in Brisbane, and are beginning to attract some quite big names indeed.
More than this, they have provided an invaluable training ground for young singers and dancers, some of whom have gone on to forge professional careers. They now have a permanent home at QPAC, and this year went fully professional for the first time. Guys and Dolls is the first production in the 2014 season, but with all the goodwill and publicity they get, and the advertising they can afford, it’s a puzzle to me why this show only ran for three nights (the season ran from March 20-23).
It obviously has a big budget, with no expense spared in design and costumes; it stars award-winning actors like Ian Stenlake as Sky Masterson and Wayne Scott Kermond as Nathan Detroit (both Green Room Award winners), Brisbane’s beloved and super-talented Liz Buchanan as Miss Adelaide, Steven Tandy as Arvide Abernathy (co-founder of the Victorian Greenroom Awards and Matilda Award winner), and Hey Hey It’s Saturday star Daryl Somers as Nicely Nicely Johnson.
I was blown away by the voices – I knew that Ian Stenlake (Sky) could act, but his deep baritone made not a few hearts flutter; Liz Buchanan has always hit the high notes with warmth passion; and Angela Harding as revivalist preacher Miss Sarah Brown, could shatter glass with her top Cs.
One problem with all of them, though, was the miking, and it’s an issue which has plagued Harvest Rain whenever they’re performing in a large space – they never get the acoustics just right. Often the singing voices are drowned out by the large enthusiastic orchestra, conducted by musical director Maitlohn Drew, although this time they were placed at the rear of the stage rather than in the pit; or they’re over-miked to the extent that the sound rises to a shriek and the words become unintelligible. This was the case last week, especially for those of us in the front stalls, and it was all I could do not to put my fingers in my ears. A great pity, because the voices didn’t need such extreme miking, even to reach the balcony seats, as the acoustics of the Concert Hall were designed for opera singers, and this lot are as good as any Wagnerian soprano at projecting.
But for all its fault, Guys and Dolls cannot fail, simply because the music and lyrics are so good, and have such a wide emotional reach, from gentle love songs like More I Cannot Wish You through fast-moving revivalist numbers like Sit Down, You’re Rockin the Boat to hot nightclub numbers like Take Back Your Mink, where after 65 years we can grasp the raunchy sub-text more easily.
Definitely a musical for all seasons, though, for all sorts and conditions of people, and if it could be toned down just a little it deserves a much longer season. The audiences are there, all right, for the fifteen-hundred-seat Concert Hall was over-flowing on the opening night, and they weren’t all friends-and-relations of the cast – I spotted a number of regular theatre-goers, and half of Brisbane’s theatre community as well.
[box]Guys and Dolls has now closed.
Featured image by Nick Morrissey[/box]

One response to “Guys and Dolls Review (QPAC, Brisbane)

  1. I expect that Harvest Rain will never escape its amateur roots. I saw this production and it was diabolical. Alison, you are so kind. What ‘professional’ company does a short run in the concert hall.
    Does anyone know where else Tim O’Connor might have directed? Let me see . . . nowhere professional other than Harvest Rain from my understanding.

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