Prof. Sehdev Kumar
TORONTO: A visit to the Stratford Theatre Festival in the summer months is a great delight. And to see and experience the classical musical Guys and Dolls is a scintillating delight.
The Festival started in 1953 under uncertain conditions in small picturesque town, a little far from any major metropolitan centre. But in these more than six decades it has become an iconic presence in Canada. To see a drama presented in one of the four theatres at Stratford is being treated to, almost always, something first rate.
This is the 65th Season of the Festival and it is also the 150th birthday of Canada. So the Season is being celebrated with many classics – dramas and musicals – as well new productions like Komagata Maru Incident, opening on August 5.
Invariably, the productions at Stratford are presented with consummate artistry. At its Festival stage – the thrust stage, with no curtains, no sets, surrounded almost 360 degrees by audience – a great live play becomes a true happening: vibrant, absorbing, right in the midst of us, all around us.
The classic American musical, Guys and Dolls, was first performed in 1950, soon after the end of the Second World War and still under the shadow of the Atom Bombs and the Cold War. The sappy and vibrant musical evokes and recreates the garish and scandalous world of touts and gangsters, sharp dressers and sharp talkers, slippery lovers and even more slippery gamblers of 1930s and 40s, in short a world of ‘sinners’, even as it was slipping away.
Under the deft and ingenious direction and choreography of Donna Feore, the remarkable team of dancers and singers on the stage turn some of the sappiest lyrics in theatre into a most scintillating experience.
Unashamedly sentimental and syrupy, ‘A Woman in Love’ offers one delicious chocolate after another:
Sky: Your eyes are the eyes
of a woman in love
and oh how they
give you away
Why try to deny
you’re a woman in love
when I know very well
what I say
At a time of easily-understood notions of honour and virtue, the Guys sing about a date, about Lady Luck:
They call you Lady Luck.
But there is room for doubt .
At times you have a very unladylike way of running out
You’re on this a date with me
The pickings have been lush
And yet before this evening is over you might give me the brush
You might forget your manners
You might refuse to stay and So the best that I can do is pray.
And then again, what does a Guy do for a Doll?:
When you see a guy reach for stars in the sky
You can bet that he’s doing it for some doll.
When you spot a John waiting out in the rain
Chances are he’s insane as only a John can be for a Jane.
When you meet a gent paying all kinds of rent
For a flat that could flatten the Taj Mahal.
Call it sad, call it funny. But it’s better than even money
That the guy’s only doing it for some doll.
In one sumptuous song after another, and in a series of scintillating dances, the Festival Stage burst into a great party, filled with laughter and pathos, sins and virtues of gone-by era, and all too-familiar tears and jerks, all mixed in a heady brew:
He bought me the fur mink five winters ago
And the gown the following fall
Then the necklace, the bag, the gloves, and the hat,
That was late ’48 I recall
Then last night in his apartment
He tried to remove them all
And I said as I ran down the hall.
Take back your mink
Take back your pearls
What made you think
That I was one of those girls?
Take back the gown
The gloves and the hat
I may be down
But I’m not flat as all that.
Have our sense of virtue and sin really changed so radically in the West in the last 70 years? Or is it only a veneer of change?
Could such lyrics of simple advice and exhortations to the Dolls be written today with a straight face?
Handle him meek and gently
Marry the man today and train him subsequently
Carefully expose him to domestic life
And if he ever tries to stray from you
Have a pot roast.
Have a headache
Have a baby
But Marry the Man today
Rather than sigh and sorrow
Marry the man today
And change his ways – change his ways – his ways
Whatever the new battle of the genders in year 2017, it does not seem as much fun and straightforward.
(Prof. Sehdev Kumar teaches International Films and the Human Condition at the University of Toronto)