Saturday, July 23, 2011
Theater review: Guys and Dolls at Dallas Summer Musicals
Forget the story line. Go for the lively music!
Dallas Summer Musicals continue their season with the sassy new national touring production of Guys and Dolls. Indeed a celebration of Broadway's golden era, this musical boasts a great score by Broadway legend Frank Loesser and snappy book by Jo Swerling and comedic legend Abe Burrows. All three took their inspiration from the works of Damon Runyon, a newspaperman and writer of the Depression era and beyond who spun humorous tales of the Broadway and Times Square hustlers, gamblers, actors, and gangsters. Guys and Dolls was based on two of his stories.
It is a credit to Loesser's talent how many songs have stayed the test of time, remaining in our culture sixty plus years later. Guys and Dolls has several "Oh, I know that" songs including "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat," "Adelaide's Lament," and of course "Luck Be a Lady." Guys and Dolls first opened on Broadway in 1951, winning Best New Musical and four other Tonys. Coming out only two years later, a flat tire of a movie version starred Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando. Forty years later this musical was revived, claiming four wins including Best Revival of a Musical.
Set in a time where fedoras, pinstripe suits, and spat shoes are the norm, women are called "dolls" and gambling is more a street game; the New York City of this musical's time is rather tame by today's standards and it blends those gamblers with showgirls, coppers, and religious reformers to witty if not hilarious results. Hustler Nathan Detroit, with his gambling friends, is continuing his infamous floating crap game. His fiancé of 14 years, showgirl Adelaide, laments she will never get her green house with white picket fence. On the other end of the street spectrum is forthright Sarah Brown, leading a literal Salvation Army-style band, determined to clean out and clean up the evil doers of Times Square. Enter Sky Masterson, a high rolling gambling man who has a weak spot for a difficult bet. He is the connecting link to both plot lines and the show's comedy and romance. Amidst cops looking for the ever moving illegal dice game, bets made and lost, love found, lost, and found again, Guys and Dolls awards the audience with laughter, great dancing sequences, some wonderful vocal harmony, and the all important happy ending.
This musical had one of the better sets for a touring production. The usual city building skyline was drawn in perspective for some depth. A street scene with lampposts, also laid in perspective, further enhanced the depth and made it more visually appealing. Small sections of apartment alleyway balconies, the nightclub, mission house, and hotel shoe shine stand rolled in and out representing the many scenes. A more intricate set not seen on many tours was the sewers of NYC, overhead pipes, steam and all.
But the best set piece was the one literally front and center as the audience entered the theatre house. A gigantic wooden Guys and Dolls sign filled the proscenium then pulled apart and up for street scenes, lit up brightly as the nightclub "marquee," and doubled for secret hideaway doors and windows. A simple but clever and effective idea by Scenery Designer Kate Sutton-Johnson. Another simple but effective idea came from Lighting Designer Charlie Morrison and the lightning white light blasted on with every roll of the dice during "The Crapshooters' Dance."
Speaking of dance, Choreographer Patti Columbo created exceptional, sharp numbers packed full of energy and difficult steps. Using a small dance ensemble whose members were well above touring production average in talent and experience, her choreography was so concise and compact it would work well in any venue, including our own Music Hall. And after reading a few of the actor's bios and remarks, Columbo is one well-loved choreographer.
Taking a handful of zoot suit pizazz, the era's trendy fashion, and a bit of comic book and circus wit, Chad Jason, as costume coordinator, regaled the actors in color, color, color. Since all NYC gamblers/gangsters look alike (right?), Jason distinguished each "gentleman" with their own individual suit lapel trim and/or hatband color. The "pinstripes" were also upgraded in stripe width and color, and lending to the comic book feel, everything was bolder and slightly overdone as any good musical should look. Showgirls' costumes or lack there of were tastefully scant – a nude bra and panties with sewn on pasties and g-string could look pretty risqué from the back row! Adelaide's costumes were top of the line in fashion. From her pillbox hat, crop jacket with flower boutonniere, pleated skirt, and lace up shoes, she certainly knew how to clean up nice.
But oh my little g-o-d, what was going on with the microphones! I had never heard such crackling, distortion or lost sound in my theatre life. At one point, the character Sky Masterson walked out and his mic screeched so loud the entire Music Hall audience, in unison, moaned "ohhhhh!" Do I hear "tech rehearsal" -- or was that the sound of someone being chewed up one side and down the other?
Guys and Dolls' story line was unquestionably dated. No one could get away calling women "dolls" and only the age 50+ group would get the humor in the line "I hope he gets stabbed by a Studebaker" (ok, ask me if you want to know). Long exposition dialogue removed the audience from the main story and the pace was much slower with its old "speak, then stop and sing, then speak again" formula, so much the style in that golden era.
Whereas today's musicals are stories in song, more operatic in style, Loesser's score showcased several songs that stood on their own in popular music. "Bushel and a Peck," "If I Were a Bell," and "I've Never Been in Love Before" were all separate sheet music hits (another Old Age Alert: people actually bought sheet music arranged for piano to take home and play and sing to!). Under the commanding musical direction of Mark Hartman, the live orchestra – yea! – filled the Music Hall with a variety of musical styles – jazz, ballad, romantic duet, even Cuban – to the point you felt like getting up and joining in, the music was still that memorable and that fun.
Amongst all those "bad guys" who could sing and dance up a storm came three who had the great opportunity to shine. Glenn Rainey, Garth Kravitz, and Todd Horman, as Nicely Nicely Johnson, Benny Southstreet, and Rusty Charlie, showed off their harmony and stepping skills and instantly won over the audience. Rainey and Kravitz returned to sing the theme song "Guys and Dolls" with heart and a sense they were having real fun. That was something across the board I felt from these actors, singers and dancers. With only small exception, they weren't just "calling it in." They were in the moment and the moment was great. Rainey and company's fabulous second act rendition of "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat" was that and more. They had to hold their final leaning toward the audience pose for a good minute, the audience was applauding that long.
Megan Sikora revealed an entirely different take with her portrayal of the long suffering – and sneezing – Adelaide. More sassy than the usual dumb, more street gritty than naïve, Sikora chewed up the scenery a bit but still made her a lovable, quirky character who just wanted to marry her no good boyfriend Nathan. Usually more conniving and elusive, Steve Rosen's Nathan Detroit was so much more lovable, almost cuddly with a dusting of Pee Wee Herman! It made each scene with Sikora's Adelaide so endearing and Detroit's plea to her in "Sue Me" was much more realistic and believable. Binoculars in hand, I was able to watch both actors closely and when they sang or merely looked into other's eyes, the chemistry between them was palpable and magical – a tremendous, perfect paring.
The small exception to being in the moment mentioned earlier came in the pairing of Erin Davie as Sarah Brown and Ben Crawford as Sky Masterson. Whenever either one or both were onstage there was an overwhelming "aura" that they were simply not there but, instead, somewhere far, far away and definitely not in the moment. Both had magnificent voices – Davie a lyrical operatic soprano and Crawford an earthy baritone, but acting wise they were blank. Davie as Sarah, the overachieving mission reformer, was too stiff, too stark, to ever make us believe she could open up to love much less be in love. Even when out of her confining uniform, drunk and dancing in Havana, she lacked any sense of the freedom Sarah would have relished.
Sky Masterson was described as a slick, high rolling, devil may care gambler. Crawford's portrayal was the complete opposite. He played Masterson all friendly and warm and the type of guy you'd like to hang out with – which didn't work for a rogue who made a bet he could make Sarah fall for him. Crawford's interpretation or direction was more suited for Oklahoma (where he played Jud but needed the lead) or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, his presence and voice were that full.
There were two songs – "My Time of Day" that Sky sang to Sarah, and their duet "I've Never Been in Love Before" – that revealed how they felt about each other. It was shockingly apparent these two actors felt very little during both those songs. By little I mean none, zero, nada. There was no chemistry between them which soon became a jarring distraction and disappointment.
So here's my musical score for DSM's Guys and Dolls. Singing and dancing got a big 10. Acting dropped down to an 8 with four or five exceptional or really good performances. Forget the story line, go for the lively music, wanna-sing-along songs, spot-on dancing, and some theatre people having the time of their lives.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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