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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Theatre For Thought, September 29, 2012

joel fishbane

When you see a guy reach for stars in the sky, you can bet that he’s doin’ it for some doll. But when you see one of Canada’s best known directors take on one of musical theatre’s most iconic shows, you can bet that she’s got other things in mind. “It scared me,” admits Diana Leblanc as she talks about taking the reins of a new production of the Loesser / Burrows musical Guys and Dolls. “But it was too wonderful an opportunity. And at my age, you can’t afford to turn things down.”

One of Canada’s best known artists, Leblanc is a founding member of Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre and has become known for her work as an actor and director for numerous theatres including Stratford, Canadian Stage and Théâtre Français de Toronto. She’s also forged a long term relationship with Montreal’s Segal Centre: Guys and Dolls will be her eighth time working with the theatre. It will also be the first time she’s ever directed a musical.

This show is very much a book musical

“I’ve appeared in The Fantastiks and a few other minor shows,” she tells me while on break from rehearsals. “I’ve directed some operas and have had some dance training. But otherwise I have no musical experience.” Nonetheless, she’s undaunted by the challenge of taking on a musical renowned for its many songs and dances. “This show is very much a book musical,” she says. “There’s a real play there. The first day of rehearsals we read the lyrics as if they were dialogue and it was all quite seamless.”

Based on the short stories of author Damon Runyon, Guys and Dolls is a comic and colourful look at gamblers and their girls in a candy-coated version of early 20th century New York. It’s a show whose appeal hasn’t faded since it first premiered in 1950. Now, 62 years later, the show seems to be forging a new lover affair with Canadian theatres. In addition to Leblanc’s production, Barrie’s Talk is Free Theatre will produce their own version in November. Meanwhile, the Shaw Festival has also given it a slot in its 2013 season. (George Bernard Shaw died three weeks before Guys and Dolls premiered on Broadway, but why quibble?) 

Leblanc isn’t surprised by the fact that show continues to endure. “It’s a fable,” she says. “It’s about love and money. If that’s not relevant, I don’t know what is.”

It’s our job to challenge the audience to forget their preconceived notions.

A unique aspect of this particular production is the mixed bag of theatrical nuts rounding out the cast. While the four leads - Scott Wentworth, Tracy Michailidis, Frank Moore and Susan Henley – all drip with experience, the supporting roles are being filled by some of Montreal’s finest character actors including Glen Bowser and Jane Gilchrist. Then there’s the ensemble, which features a crack team of Montreal’s rising talent. And in a gutsy move, two stand up comics, Mike Paterson and Massimo, were hired to don the fedoras and pinstripes as gamblers and gangsters.

Leblanc explains this is all part of creating her own vision that is unique from past productions or the famous film where Marlon Brando sang with marbles in his mouth. “Everyone has an opinion about the show,” she says. “It’s our job to challenge the audience to forget their preconceived notions.”

Leblanc’s inauguration into the musical theatre world has so far been a smooth sail across traditionally rocky seas. She’s enjoying the collaboration with choreographer Nick White and musical director Nick Burgess. The team all had a voice in the casting decisions, making the entire production more a team effort then a dictatorship. Whether this heralds a new era for Leblanc as a director of musical theatre remains to be seen; for now, she’s focused exclusively on opening night where she hopes, no doubt, that luck will prove to be a lady. 

“The show is a love song,” she says. “It’s an escape to a New York that for the most part still exists. New York is still glamorous and exciting. So is our show.”

Guys and Dolls by Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows plays at Montreal’s Segal Centre from September 30 – October 28, 2012. For tickets visit or call 514.739.7944

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