Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Theater review: Guys & Dolls at Plaza Theatre Company in Cleburne
Plaza Theatre Company did not merely do the script justice; they performed it with excellence
"The companionship of a doll is a pleasant thing even for a period of time running into months. But for a close relationship that can last us through all the years of our life, no doll can take the place of aces back to back." ~ Sky Masterson
It used to be if someone would ask me to drive an hour to see a show in a town with less than 30,000 people, I would politely decline and seek out something a little closer to home. But once again, I found myself making the long trek down US-67 on my way to the Plaza Theatre Company. Was I frustrated? Annoyed by having to make the drive? Dreading what might be a painful and amateur performance?
Absolutely not! I reviewed my first show at Plaza back in 2010 when they presented Over the River and Through the Woods. Since that first exposure to the Plaza Theatre Company, I have come to look forward to their offerings. Don't let the small venue and the drive keep you from a delightful evening! So the question before us now is, how did the folks at Plaza handle the classic Guys & Dolls?
One of the charms of this theatre is how they effectively handle performing in the round despite the intimacy of the venue. (Intimacy is theatre review code for "very small.") The moment I walked into the theatre I was struck by how Julie Asher Lee and Ronda Shubert transformed the entire venue through beautifully painted murals and set pieces.
Every square inch of wall and floor space was intentionally designed to set the tone for the play. The attention to detail was impressive and effective!
Strength in this production was found in JaceSon Barrus's set design. There were a total of fourteen scene changes during the two acts capturing eight unique settings. Using a combination of rotating walls, rolling set pieces, and a highly choreographed team, these scene changes were seamless and effective. To be able to pull off such a variety of scenes with distinction from one another in such a small venue with effectiveness was no small feat. Barrus has a talent for designing minimalistic touches that create a drastic change of scene. Well done!
Guys & Dolls is a script that relies heavily on strong vocals, good comic timing and stage presence. Thankfully Nicely-Nicely Johnson, played by G. Aaron Siler, possessed all three. The show opened with some comic dialogue between Nicely-Nicely and Benny Southstreet, played by Michael Durington. Siler and Durington riffed off one another like a well tuned vaudeville act, and then launched into the "Fugue for Tinhorns", where they were joined by Rusty Charlie, played by Mark Mckee. Fugue is a musical number requiring some skill from each member of the trio due to the contrapuntal arrangement of the voices. Although it was executed well, Mckee's voice was often swallowed by the vocals of Siler and Durington. It felt as though each actor was singing lead instead of playing off one another as a trio. The nature of Fugue required each member of the trio to pull back and intensify at strategic moments in counterpoint to the others for maximum lyrical and musical effect. That said, these three men sang with confidence and sold the number, despite the challenge of the Fugue.
After the impressive number "The Oldest Established," as choreographed by Jennifer Leyva and performed by the men of the cast, we had our first exchange between Nathan Detroit, played by Ben Phillips, and Sky Masterson, played by Aaron Lett. Phillips and Lett had a natural chemistry and perfect comic timing. Phillips had the intimidating task of filling shoes once worn by Frank Sinatra. I am happy to report that Phillips was the consummate Nathan Detroit! He didn't attempt to recreate Sinatra's iconic portrayal, he made Detroit his own, and did so beautifully. Phillips' Nathan Detroit was a gambling miscreant with a heart of gold with whom the whole audience empathized. When Phillips was on the stage, he sold the scene.
Lett as Sky Masterson was compelling as well. Lett's strength was in dialogue with his fellow actors. His scenes with Warwick were pure gold, particularly their first conversation inside the Save-a-Soul Mission.
One of the strongest and most consistent vocalists throughout the production was Sarah Brown, played by Emily Warwick. Her pure tone and vocal prowess was perfect for the innocent and conviction-driven sergeant on a mission to save souls. In her duet "I'll Know" with Lett we could hear that pure optimism and faith in her voice. Unfortunately, the number seemed to be out of Lett's ideal vocal range so his contribution to the duet paled next to Warwick's more powerful voice. This contrast was even more noticeable during their duet at the end of the first act, "My Time of Day/I've Never Been in Love Before." Lett was impeccable during dialogue but suffered during the musical numbers.
One characterization with which I wrestled was that of Harry the Horse as played by Daniel Scott Robinson. I have seen Robinson in other productions and know he is a capable actor. In this show, however, his accent and delivery were jarring. Each time he delivered a line it felt as though the momentum of the production came to a halt. The delivery seemed flat, and the focus appeared to be more on maintaining the tough-guy accent he was affecting more than delivering the line effectively. As this was the opening weekend, I am confident that Robinson will come in to his own and fit in with the rest of the ensemble, leaving the jarring moments behind.
The highlight of the entire production could be summed up with one name: Adelaide. Played by Camille Shaw, she was spot-on perfect for the role. At the risk of sounding cliché, Shaw stole the show. She had the audience in hysterics with her characterization of Adelaide. Every expression, movement and interaction was finely tuned for maximum comic effect.
The highlight of the Act One was "Adelaide's Lament" while the highlight of Act Two was Shaw and Phillips Duet, "Sue Me." Simply brilliant. Phillips blew us all away with his vocal and as always, Shaw was perfect in both performance and vocals.
Another memorable moment was the tender "More I Cannot Wish You" sung by Arvide Abernathy played by Jay A. Cornils. He convincingly portrayed the loving grandfather figure to Sarah Brown as he shared his heart with her through song. A beautiful moment.
Two ensemble members, Rachel Hunt and Justin Diyer, had a featured moment on the dance floor during the Cuban nightclub scene. Excellent dancing — but not just there! Throughout the show these two dancers demonstrated a grace that set the standard for the rest of the cast.
A thread that held the production together (if you'll forgive the pun) was the excellent costume design by Tina Barrus. All the characters, from the leads to the ensemble, were dressed in eye-catching, period appropriate garb. With the possible exception of the Mission Band uniforms, any of these costumes would have been as at home on a national tour as they were at the Plaza. Excellent work!
One challenge that smaller venues consistently face is that of lighting. Siler and Barrus have this down to a science. When you first walk into the theater, your eyes are instantly drawn heavenward to one of the most complex light matrixes seen in community theatre. The ceiling is virtually made of lights, each with its own purpose. One of these days I need to get into their booth to see their light panel. But the impressive thing is not the ceiling of lights, it is in how Siler and Barrus use that impressive bank of lighting effectively. The lights added to, and never distracted from, the performances of the actors.
Guys & Dolls is a show that holds a special place in the history of American theatre. Plaza Theatre Company under the direction of Jay Lewis did not merely do the script justice, they performed it with excellence! Shaw, Siler, Phillips and Lett took ownership of their characters, making us fall in love with this comic masterpiece all over again. Once again Plaza Theatre Company, you made me enjoy myself despite the two hour drive!
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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