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NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. – As dramatic heroines go, Barbara Undershaft is a bit of a drip.

As a major in the Salvation Army intent on saving as many souls as possible, she practically glows with youthful idealism. But before the curtain comes down on George Bernard Shaw’s capitalist fantasia “Major Barbara,” which opened Friday night in the Royal George Theatre, all the doe-eyed naiveté has gone out of her eyes and been magically replaced with a hard-won pragmatism about the ways of the world.

Director Jackie Maxwell’s production of Shaw’s long-winded but monumentally engaging play about the tug-of-war between public and corporate interests sets out to rescue Undershaft from her status as a weak protagonist all too willing to mold her ideals to the arguments of others. Alas, despite Maxwell’s laudable efforts and a remarkable performance from the magnetic Nicole Underhay in the title role, the show fails to transform Shaw’s projection screen of a protagonist into a living, breathing human.

But that’s hardly a fatal flaw for this play, itself a kind of cobbled-together sounding board for some of Shaw’s more brilliantly crafted speeches and jokes. It hinges on the moral evolution of Major Barbara, whose appetite for religion and social justice is complicated by the fact that her father, Andrew Undershaft (Benedict Campbell) is the world’s most successful purveyor of war machinery to anyone who can afford it.

From the start, this is a compelling battle: the father’s merchant of death versus Barbara’s angel of mercy. Their journey, helped along by a bevy of minor characters each pointed in different directions on the show’s spinning moral compass, leads them inexorably toward one another. Or, at least, it leads Barbara inexorably toward her father’s dark vision of the world.

Along the way, we meet Cusins (the appealing Shaw Fest vet Graeme Somerville), a “collector of religions” who joins the Salvation Army only to woo Barbara; the sarcastic Lady Undershaft (in a hilarious turn from Laurie Paton), who is estranged from her wealthy, arms-dealing husband; and a host of other sisters and unfortunate street-dwellers.

Among the swirling, timeless arguments about the reliance of scrupulous charities on unscrupulous profiteers (see: Wall Street, Halliburton, et al.) and idealism’s collision course with rocky reality, there are lots of good jokes and memorable turns of phrase. “I wouldn’t have your conscience, not for all your income,” a huffy Cusins at one point declares to Undershaft, who responds: “I wouldn’t have your income, not for all your conscience.”

Most of all though, despite its dashed-off, impressionable protagonist and a preachy second act that drags too slowly, “Major Barbara” is worth watching for one riveting and disturbing speech by Andrew Undershaft in the third act about the nature of poverty. That speech, which reveals a dark undercurrent of Shavian thinking and as much chilling food for thought as any Shakespearean soliloquy, makes the entire experience worthwhile.

Major barbara

Three stars

When: Through Oct. 19

Where: Royal George Theatre, Shaw Festival

Tickets: $24 to $110

Info: (800) 511-7429 or www.shawfest.com

“Guys and Dolls”

Damon Runyon lifted the title character of his short story “The Idyll of Sarah Brown” straight from Shaw’s “Major Barbara.” Some 17 years later, in 1950, Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows did much the same for “Guys and Dolls,” their musical collaboration with composer and lyricist Frank Loesser.

Most of “Major Barbara’s” major baggage was dropped in both the story and the musical, making the virtuous (and conveniently corruptible) Salvation Army leader the ideal focus for a show about the colorful demimonde of Broadway in the early ’50s.

The Shaw Festival’s grand, no-expense-spared production of one of the most note-perfect musicals in the canon opened Saturday night in the Festival Theatre to ecstatic applause from the bejeweled and tuxedoed crowd. And the performers in this cast, talented singers and expert dancers all, earned every last clap.

“Guys and Dolls,” beloved of high school drama departments across the United States, is a perfect cartoon of a show with only a hint of a story and some of the better lyrics ever written for the stage. It’s a comic-book world of lovable gangsters and their even more lovable dames engaged in a joyful urban dance in an airbrushed version of New York City in the middle of the century.

The Shaw has become increasingly adept at producing the great old chestnuts of American musical theater with some connection to the Irish playwright after whom the festival was named. Its been on an upward swing since its expert “Mack and Mabel” in 2007, later turning fine productions of “Wonderful Town” and “My Fair Lady” (based on Shaw’s “Pygmalion”), among others.

For this production, directed by Tadeusz Bradecki with molecular fidelity to the original material and choreographed to within a millimeter of its life by Parker Esse, the Shaw has rounded up a phenomenal cast.

As Sarah Brown (read: Barbara Undershaft), Elodie Gillett brings far more charm, contemporary humor and romantic longing to the role than it probably deserves. She stumbles her way gloriously through the rum-soaked number “If I Were a Bell” and her performance of “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” is hilarious and heartbreaking in the same breath.

The comic romance between Nathan Detroit and the put-upon dancer Adelaide comes to shimmering life on the talents of Shawn Wright and Jenny L. Wright, who provide the bulk of the show’s quirky spirit and some of its sharpest pieces of humor and songwriting. His mastery of that Runyonesque combination of slang and formal language is spot-on. Her delivery of the sneeze-ridden “Adelaide’s Lament” is a model of fine-tuned comic timing.

As Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Thom Allson nearly runs away with the show with a nuclear-powered performance of “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” that rocked the house.

The only false note here is Kyle Blair’s too self-serious portrayal of the dapper gangster Sky Masterson, whose entirely humorless delivery of the show’s most famous song, “Luck Be a Lady,” lands with a thud.

There’s something to be said, once in a while, for eschewing any egotistical desire to project some sort of contemporary vision on a modern classic. Sometimes it’s best to respect the original material, to stay faithful to the admittedly simple vision of its creators and to set about the difficult-enough work of reproducing it.

That’s exactly what Bradecki, choreographer Esse, set designer Peter Hartwell and musical director Paul Sportelli set out to do. And boy, did they succeed.

guys and dolls

Three and a half stars (Out of four)

When: Through Nov. 3

Where: Festival Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Tickets: $24 to $110

Info: (800) 511-7429 or www.shawfest.com

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com