In Southern Ontario we are blessed with such an embarrassing amount of theatrical richness, it’s easy to forget how lucky we are. Small towns in rural Ontario boast high calibre talent that compete for and win parts in theatrical Meccas like New York, London and LA.
Thom Allison, who is playing the affable gambler Nicely–Nicely in the Shaw Festival’s production of the gangster–musical Guys and Dolls, is one of those high calibre talents you might take for granted is performing just down the road. I sat down with him at the Festival Theatre, and asked why he and other Canadian Broadway talents like Julie Martell come to Shaw after doing parts on Broadway.
“Yeah, that’s a really big thing, once you’ve done it. Having more than one credit in New York really does sort of count; having two or three or four, each one kind of means something. In Canada, it just sort of means ‘you’ve done Broadway’. It doesn’t need to be like multiple times, that does the trick – just one part on Broadway and you’re good to go.”
“But also the opportunity to work with this company is sort of a huge thing. And it’s the role, what the piece is, and what it’s doing, and what it’s offering. You know I’m established enough that it’s not just about having a job. Even if there’s no money, I’d rather have no money and be free for the right opportunity. I really believe that if you’re free, and you make a choice to be free, the universe will meet you with that choice. So it has to be good all around.”
“This came up, and it was Colehouse in Ragtime, which is a show I’ve always loved. I was in the third workshop of it, and you knew, you could feel in the room, you could just tell it was going to be something extraordinary. Jackie Maxwell was directing it… It just felt like the combination of things.”
“When it came up I had been doing Priscilla [Queen of the Desert] for a while, and it was time for something else. It’s a lead, and that’s great, but really… I was playing a cupcake.”
“Doing Priscilla was a bit draining, in terms of self confidence, and I wasn’t convinced at all that I could pull off Colehouse. I had another offer at that time, and I considered saying no, but my agent said to me well, you can do such and such or… Colehouse. Shut up, don’t yell at me!”
“It’s a decision you make as a performer, you walk into the ‘I don’t know’. I don’t know if it’s going to be good, I don’t know if it’ll be a hit or not, but at least I tried. If I don’t try I’ll never know, and if I try and I suck, well I suck. So I came, and I loved it. I said yes, and I had one of the best times I’ve ever had.”
Colehouse in Ragtime was 2012, however. I asked Allison his favourite thing about being in Guys and Dolls.
“Well, the real answer is: “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat”, really. I’ve wanted to sing that song for twenty years. When Jackie came to me and asked what I might like to do in Guys and Dolls: Nicely. Sky is another version of Colehouse, in a way. I’ve done that in act one of Ragtime, the laid back swagger and the ego. And Nathan just talks too much. That’s not my part, really. Sky is considered the lead role, but really appears in only about one fifth of the show, and Nathan who does all the talking in the show, more than Sky, and Nicely sings all the songs – he’s the singing lead in the show.”
Being a philosophical soul, I asked him as well what he hopes to achieve with his life and career as as an actor, and his answer is one many theatre artists would echo, I think.
“Certainly consistency, that’s one thing, though I’ve been really lucky that way, working almost constantly. To say to have a good time sounds trite, and simplistic, though I do hope to enjoy what I’m doing, but ultimately I want to entertain the most people; be that an intensely complicated deeply emotional journey like Colehouse, or a Nicely, which is not a deep journey, but it can be a joyful journey.”
“You know as performers we have the potential to sort of change people’s lives – and I know that sounds like, ew! – but really in that moment, they laugh, they forget whatever’s happening... I really felt the effect of being in a role like Colehouse that can really get inside somebody and last. It’s a gutteral connection. It’s kind of cleansing for them. They were so emotionally taken somewhere that it has left an impression on their soul that they still talk about years later. That to me is the most thrilling thing, that some small part of people is altered by what we did.”
I share Allison’s optimism that theatre can rejuvenate, and definitely recommend a trip to catch the final weeks of Guys and Dolls. Performers like Thom Allison, Elodie Gillett, Kyle Blair, and a megawatt ensemble really will take you on ravishing ride from the Gambling dens of Manhattan, the drinking dives of Cuba, and the roller coaster that is romance. V
GUYS AND DOLLS
Until Nov. 3.
Festival Theatre @
10 Queen’s Parade,