Broadway’s classic musical Guys and Dolls (1950) gets a delightful and immaculate revival in this production by the Antipodes Theatre Company.
Guys and Dolls is a musical with a towering reputation, which I struggled to understand given its typical rom-com trope about wastrels encountering love and being tamed by women. It guarantees a good laugh but doesn’t reach all-time classic tunes like Phantom of the Opera (1986), pull off dazzling, glorious performances like Moulin Rouge (2018) or powerfully reconstruct history like Hamilton (2015) does. Yet after seeing the Antipodes Theatre Company’s production at Chapel off Chapel, I feel a renewed love and appreciation for the musical. The theatre company has successfully shown how a dated tale of love and sin can still be reimagined into a delightful and timeless piece through genderfluid and queer-inclusive casting, spot-on vocal performances, modern funky choreographies and stage reconfiguration.
Set in 1920s Prohibition Era New York, Guys and Dolls is a musical comedy exploring the unlikeliest encounters: a gambler and a missionary sister, a showgirl dreaming about marriage life and a craps game manager, slyness and kindness, love and comedy. Nathan Detroit is under pressure to find a venue for his next craps games while promising his girlfriend of 14 years, Adelaide, to get married. To secure a venue for his illegal game, he first needs an impossible-to-lose wager. Enter Sky Madison, a charming high-rolling gambler in Manhattan. Nathan challenges Sky to take the prim and proper missionary doll, Sarah Brown, to Havana, Cuba, which leads to him eventually falling in love with her.
The Antipodes Theatre Company has delivered a faithful reenactment of the Broadway classic in terms of content. The storyline and its memorable songs including the classic ‘Luck Be a Lady’ are kept intact, if not executed near-flawlessly. Walking into the Chapel Off Chapel theatre, I felt myself tumbling into a Prohibition nightclub in Manhattan, with the cast dispersing throughout the room, interacting, holding odd conversations, creating an unceasing buzz as if they were existing and going about their life right in front of me. The Antipodes Theatre Company has attempted to create an immersive experience with no clear-cut boundaries between the stage and the audience. The downside of this setup is that it makes the stage feel cramped and dilutes attention from the main storyline at times. The front-seat audience actually got a table at the “nightclub”, which put them incredibly close to the action. You would feel the temptation to chime in on the small conversations happening on stage, pulsating energy of the marching bands around you, the vibrant nightlife and the urge to stand up and join the dancers as they hop, swing, shake, gyrate and dash across the stage.
The moving lights at Chapel Off Chapel are fully utilised to direct attention to the actions taking place on stage, as well as to evoke the electric atmosphere of Havana. This is an apt artistic choice given the confined space and the band sitting on stage. Under Jonathan Homsey and Carolyn Ooi, the choreography also makes full use of the limited space by opting for individualistic acrobatic movements and an anachronistic effect instead of clean synchronised alignment-emphasised choreography. Highlights are the exhilarating steamy Havana scene and the craps game with the full cast on stage. Adelaide’s performance scene with glamorous costume and commercial sexy dance also makes a delightful watch, and the nonuniform funky performance of each dancer adds a comical element to the scene. Compared to previous productions of the play, the tap dance has been replaced with more modern commercial nightclub dance that integrates Latino salsa and waacking movements pioneered by the queer community.
Where the production really scores is their out-of-the-box casting that is genderfluid, ethnically diverse and body-positive. The use of diverse and non-binary actors (including Indigenous actors) breathes new life into a story whose entire plot is based off the traditional binary roles, as well as creating an interesting dynamic between the characters.
Sizer stands out with her nuanced performance of the showgirl Miss Adelaide with the squeaky, nasally voice that conveys a fragile aching heart coupled with comedy and sarcasm. Among the cast, she is able to inhabit the character most faithfully to the original with her versatile, strong vocals and immaculate acting. She and her hotbox dancers stole the show with their comical striptease in ‘Take Back Your Mink’, while powerfully expressing her vulnerable, yearning heart for Nathan in their duet ‘Sue Me’. Alongside Adelaide, Shannan Foley delivers an adorable and jovial Nathan Detroit through his tenor voice, who is essentially a softie beneath that street-smart, sly man. Nathan’s sidekicks, Benny Southstreet and Nicely-Nicely Johnson, are portrayed by Angelo Vasilakakos and Bugs Baschera, respectively, with a comic and childlike manner–an interesting diversion from the original that creates a fun dynamic between Nathan and them, even though some jokes no longer play out like they would from an old white man. Baschera’s age and gender swapping rendition of Nicely-Nicely is particularly applaudable with her jittering manner and comic, sassy tone that brings to life a delightful and adorable character.
Alongside Sizer, Maddison Coleman as Sister Sarah Brown is a star of the show, with her powerhouse soprano vocals. She delivers the character with versatility by switching from the timid, clumsy missionary doll reeling under the charm of Sky Madison in ‘If I Were a Bell’, to belting those high notes in ‘I’ll Know’, to comically tipsy dancing at Havana. Her pairing with American actor Javon King as the smooth-talking charming Sky Madison is delightful with their contrasting appearance and youthful chemistry. Sky’s surer voice blends unexpectedly well with Sarah’s without being overpowered. His character has taken on a more modern texture, embodying more of an American shrewd businessman in a sleek suit with charismatic appearance and charming dance grooves. The scene where he dances with another man in Havana is much joy to watch.
Finally, notable among the cast is Kikki Temple’s queer performance as both the missionary boss who wants to close the chapel, and the nightclub’s MC with an unrivalled stage presence that commands all. Their dynamic performance, talent and grace successfully brings out a captivating and affecting show. The band in the background (beautifully conducted by David Butler) comes roaring to life with Nicely-Nicely’s satisfying performance of ‘Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat’. The transitions between the scenes are notably creative, examples being the transition from a garage where the craps game is about to take place to Havana with Benny shaking his legs when the music comes on to Nathan’s bewilderment, and when Nicely-Nicely jumps down a hole to the missionary meeting.
There are minor issues here and there, such as the cast’s inconsistent American accent and uncoordinated movements that makes it confusing as to where to direct attention, but they all can be improved with practice. Overall, it is a delightful and solid revival of Guys and Dolls that would be more than enough to satiate the frequent theatregoers and fans of this musical.
You can catch Guys and Dolls at Chapel Off Chapel until 19 August.