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Bringing out the stars of musical comedy


If there is a musical comedy masterpiece, it is Frank Loesser, Abe Burrows, and Jo Swerling's Guys and Dolls. Swerling and Burrows'book adapts Damon Runyon's stories offunny, flavorful lowlifes with wit and zest. Loesser's tasty lyrics and wonderful music are even better in the plot-oriented songs that have no life outside this show than the standard popular numbers, like "I'll Know When My Love Comes Along," "I've Never Been in Love Before," "I Love You A Bushel and a Peck," or "If I Were a Bell." Actors relish the rolesthey play to sing "I Got A Horse Right Here," or "A Person Could Develop A Cold," and the show-stopping "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat."

I think a bad version of Guys and Dolls would be a pleasure, so Stratford's top-of-the-line treatment is a delight. I did like Brian MacDonald's 1990 production at Stratford better. But the show is worth redoing, and Kelly Robinson shapes a winning revival with the help of Michael Lichtefeld's choreography, Berthold Carriere's always top-notch musical direction, Debra Hanson's playful designs, and with the same Sky Masterson.

Cynthia Dale is a revelation as Sarah Brown, the Salvation Army lass. Dale always sings gloriously and acts well, but here she turns out to be the funniest Sarah I've seen, and, of course, one of the most beautiful. Her drunk scene in Havana is a treat. Scott Wentworth has got slyer and craftier along with older, but is no less appealing as Sky and sings and dances "Luck, Be a Lady" well enough to dominate Robinson and Lichtefeld's show-stopping dance number.

Geordie Johnson is an oddly glamorous Nathan Detroit, but sells that gambler's "Sue Me" with raffish charm. As his long-suffering Adelaide, Sheila McCarthy has a fine time switching from flashy showgirl to neurotic with a nasal drip --- all caricature, and all right on the money.

Bruce Dow's amusing Nicely-Nicely Johnson is almost overpowered by his dazzling tenor singing. Douglas Chamberlain's dry Salvation Army veteran Arvide Abernathy rises with artful understatement to turn his fond "More I Cannot Wish You" into an art song.

And a big cast of adorably raunchy characters brings the show to triumphant life. There's an almost religious fervor in their awed choral anthem to "The oldest established, permanent, floating crap game in New York."

There's nothing wrong with John Woods' revival of Macbeth; it just lives up to the reputation of Shakespeare's "Scottish Play" (theater folk superstitiously don't like to even say its title) as impossible to play successfully. I've seen at least a dozen Macbeths. Some were in great productions, some had a great Macbeth, some had a great Lady Macbeth --- and none with even two of the above.

Woods' direction is workmanlike and unremarkable, except for Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene in which I felt sorry for Lucy Peacock. She had to try to make sense of such peculiarly stylized business as constant dithering of her hands and slowly wrapping herself in a floor cloth.

John Ferguson's designs are appropriately dark and drab, though it would seem to make more sense to highlight Ms. Peacock's beauty as Lady Macbeth than Graham Abbey's nice chest as Macbeth. John Stead's fights are unusually excitingly staged. Otherwise, this solid production is entirely well handled but without the artists' covering themselves with glory, except for Stead and Gil Wechsler, whose lighting is the play's strongest element.

And Stratford has a second hit musical, Cole Porter's Anything Goes. This is the last Broadway version with additionalCole Porter songs not in the original show, and P. G. Woodhouse and Guy Bolton's book tricked up by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, and most recently fixed up by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman. The plot is foolish enough to have required endless tinkering, but this most recent updating doesn't lose its '30s flavor. Despite major miscastings, Stratford's revival is a crowd-pleasing, fun-filled picnic.

What's wrong is that Stratford's resident muscom diva, Cynthia Dale, is too inalterably ladylike for the role of Reno Sweeney, evangelist turned nightclub singer. Reno was written for the legendary, brassy Ethel Merman. Still, however over-refined, Dale has great charm, sings brilliantly in all styles, and here reveals no little ability to tap dance.

Worse miscasting is Michael Gruber as Billy Crocker, whom Reno describes as a pretty boy. If not exactly homely, Gruber looks, at best, like a young George C. Scott. But his singing and acting style is right out of a '30s movie, and he performs the role ideally. Finally, I can't get upset about the stuffy, foolish Lord Evelyn Oakleigh's not being played, as usual, by a gawky, funny-looking geek, but rather by a really handsome man who sings and dances superbly. Laird Mackintosh gives up none of Lord Evelyn's comedy but adds dimension to the part.

Other standouts in the large cast are Sheila McCarthy as a gangster's moll who goes through sailors like treats at a buffet, Elizabeth DeGrazia as the sweet debutante Hope Harcoat, Jimmy Spadola as Moonface Martin --- only the 13th most-wanted US criminal --- and Jason Sermonia and Julius Sermonia as acrobatic Chinese. (What is it with the emphasis on acrobats? I've seen two shows in California, one in Rochester, and two at Stratford that featured acrobatics, all in one month.) Everyone tap dances with aplomb, even actors playing rich old folks, like classical-repertory veterans Douglas Chamberlain and Patricia Collins.

I don't know any previous work of director and choreographer Anne Allen, but she makes this show zip along with infectious speed and nonstop hilarity, makes it dance like the best Hollywood musicals of the '30s, and glosses over any of its flaws with irresistible jollity.

This is a big show for the smaller Avon Theater, but it works. Patrick Clark's ship set is necessarily scaled down, but it opens to display interiors and accommodate all kinds of slapstick sailors and showgirls, gangsters, aristocrats, and whatnot else. And Clark's flashy costumes are a hoot. Berthold Carriere conducts and directs the great Porter score as well as it is ever likely to be treated.

Stratford Festival,Stratford, Ontario: Guys and Dollsat the Festival Theatre through November 7; Macbethat the Festival Theatre throughOctober 30; Anything Goesat the Avon Theatre through October 31. Tix: $23.65 to $111.40 ($17.57 to $82.77 US dollars). 800-567-1600,