April 25, 2019

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Triple-threat performers make Guys and Dolls a sure bet

Collaboration between WSO, the RWB and Rainbow Stage hits on their come-out roll

Paula Potosky is a powerhouse while Timothy Gledhill is perfect as a cocky, swaggering gambler in Guys and Dolls. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

RUTH BONNEVILLE

Paula Potosky is a powerhouse while Timothy Gledhill is perfect as a cocky, swaggering gambler in Guys and Dolls. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Three years ago, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in collaboration with Rainbow Stage rolled the dice that its loyal Pops audiences would flock to the Centennial Concert Hall for semi-staged Broadway musicals more typically presented under the open-air theatre’s fabled dome each summer.

That original bet bore fruit with its fledgling co-production of South Pacific in 2017, as well as last year’s A Chorus Line. This year, it’s the gamblers' turn to cut loose, with the local première of Guys and Dolls performed with the symphony orchestra, directed by Jillian Willems and featuring an impressive cast of local triple-threat performers.

The briskly paced, 145-minute show (including intermission) also included a 14-member ensemble culled from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School Recreational Division, which morphed between choruses of cabaret dancers to craps shooters.

The 1950 Tony-award winning show inspired by Damon Runyon’s short stories of 1920s and '30s Runyonland — a thinly veiled "New Yawk" — features Frank Loesser’s still dazzling music and lyrics with book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows. It tells the tale of underworld gamblers willing to bet it all on love, with Sky Masterson ultimately taking home the top prize: the Save-a-Soul mission’s Sergeant Sarah Brown.

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Three years ago, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in collaboration with Rainbow Stage rolled the dice that its loyal Pops audiences would flock to the Centennial Concert Hall for semi-staged Broadway musicals more typically presented under the open-air theatre’s fabled dome each summer.

That original bet bore fruit with its fledgling co-production of South Pacific in 2017, as well as last year’s A Chorus Line. This year, it’s the gamblers' turn to cut loose, with the local première of Guys and Dolls performed with the symphony orchestra, directed by Jillian Willems and featuring an impressive cast of local triple-threat performers.

The briskly paced, 145-minute show (including intermission) also included a 14-member ensemble culled from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School Recreational Division, which morphed between choruses of cabaret dancers to craps shooters.

The 1950 Tony-award winning show inspired by Damon Runyon’s short stories of 1920s and '30s Runyonland — a thinly veiled "New Yawk" — features Frank Loesser’s still dazzling music and lyrics with book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows. It tells the tale of underworld gamblers willing to bet it all on love, with Sky Masterson ultimately taking home the top prize: the Save-a-Soul mission’s Sergeant Sarah Brown.

Daniel Bogart as Nathan Detroit (centre) lets Bernie Pastorin (Nicely-Nicely Johnson) know what's what. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Daniel Bogart as Nathan Detroit (centre) lets Bernie Pastorin (Nicely-Nicely Johnson) know what's what. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Musicians are usually squirrelled away in the dark bowels of orchestra pits for these types of shows, but this one featured WSO resident maestro Julian Pellicano leading the players on several onstage risers with principal timpanist Mike Kemp easily stick-handling a drum kit, and the show’s music director Rachel Cameron keeping things well in hand on her grand piano.

The New York-born conductor with this music in his proverbial wheelhouse proved not only can he swing hard with one hit tune seemingly following the next, but could also moonlight as an actor, making his thespian debut with his own spoken lines as the MC at the club, Hot Box.

The program technically bills the cast as The Stars of Rainbow Stage, and so many of these guys and dolls lit up the hall with a galaxy of raw, blazing talent Winnipeg is renowned for.

The first of those is the always wonderful Paula Potosky as Sargeant Sarah Brown, with her soaring, crystal clear soprano voice and instinctive acting skills being a sure bet on any stage both here and beyond. Never mind that her prim ’n’ proper portrayal at first felt somewhat flat due to overly restrained direction that didn’t allow her to fully inhabit her character — unusual for this local treasure.

However, by the time we got to If I Were a Bell performed with joyous abandon, she took full ownership of her role and threw her customary sparks that cemented her reputation as Rainbow’s (and others) own pot of gold.

WSO conductor Julian Pellicano leads the orchestra while onstage, and even has a few lines as the DJ at the Hot Box. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

WSO conductor Julian Pellicano leads the orchestra while onstage, and even has a few lines as the DJ at the Hot Box. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Another star is Laura Olafson as long-suffering, "wheezing and sneezing" fiancée Miss Adelaide, still engaged after 14 years to Daniel Bogart’s Nathan Detroit, who belts out Adelaide’s Lament like there’s no tomorrow. She also held nothing back with her ball-of-energy portrayal fuelled by razor-sharp physical comedy skills and spot-on timing, spitting out her words during Sue Me that made her hapless character seem oh-so-human.

Her subsequent duet with Potosky in Marry the Man Today hit another blackjack, with these two powerhouses performing a highlight together.

Sky Masterson performed by Timothy Gledhill, who appeared last year on Rainbow Stage as the shaggy beast in Beauty and the Beast created a cocky, swaggering gambler with his own resonant vocals, highlighted during I’ll Know, and a gorgeous My Time of Day sung with Sarah, matched note for note by Bogart's Detroit in the latter’s Sue Me and The Oldest Established.

Two Winnipeg pillars include the charismatic Debbie Maslowsky appearing as Sarah’s (now) grandmother Arvide Abernathy, whose More I Cannot Wish You touched our hearts as she told her granddaughter to follow hers.

The second stage veteran, Mariam Bernstein, marking her Rainbow Stage debut, also brought "gangsta" intensity to her gender-bending role as Big Julie, with her throwing dice in Luck Be A Lady quickly becoming another highlight while gaining new resonance as an anthem for female empowerment.

Slapstick: Paula Potosky lets Timothy Gledhill have it. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Slapstick: Paula Potosky lets Timothy Gledhill have it. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

The trio of small-time gamblers who function as a slick, nattily attired Greek chorus sold it hard from their first Fugue for Tin Horns, including Aaron Hutton in dual roles as Harry the Horse and Rusty Charlie, who spews "toity-toid street" Brooklyn brogue as easily as spinning a roulette wheel; Elliot Lazar as Benny Southstreet; and a subtler portrayal of Nicely-Nicely Johnson provided by Bernie Pastorin.

Recalling that Winnipeg’s now 19-year old Dry Cold Productions began life as "merely" staged readings, with actors by necessity tethered to onstage music stands — which has long since evolved to terrific, fully staged annual productions — this growing series of WSO/RS co-productions now falls between a rock and a hard place. Many of these stars are just so good, and indeed so professional that they memorize all their lines anyway. That creates an odd hybrid of some singers on book, with others not; with those pesky music stands visually rocking the boat as just plain clunky physical barriers to the unfolding narrative.

A few of the show’s bigger numbers, including Act II’s Rocking the Boat gained in significant energy when the ensemble sang as a chorus, although many were uneven. One of the most frustrating moments, frankly, became Adelaide’s Take Back Your Mink, with the leotard-garbed dancers appearing overly balletic, including Matthew Armet’s uneasy, jazz-inflected choreography that added little to what should have been a showstopper.

Even Olafson finishing her solo alone onstage felt oddly anti-climatic. A kick line or two, or even a few feather boas thrown in for good measure would have added Hot Box sizzle, with these woefully missed opportunities invariably punching gaping holes in the show’s overall impact.

A few more costume pieces would have been welcomed. A wedding veil for Adelaide’s final nuptials, for example, would also have been an easy add-on. The production was not helped by overly dim lighting at times, and a few wonky balance issues with the amplification system.

But despite those minor imperfections, the multi-generational crowd of 1,374 leapt to its feet for these guys and dolls willing to risk it all for love, with this timeless tale brought to life by the three organizations also betting on success still enthralling after 69 years.

The show repeats Saturday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Centennial Concert Hall.

holly.harris@shaw.ca

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