Guys and Dolls
Guys and Dolls is a big musical. It’s got big orchestrations, big scenery, big characters, and a big history. So in its third iteration on Broadway, it’s surprising that what keeps this classic afloat are the minor details.
I arrived at the Nederlander Theatre (gorgeously renovated, post Rent) just before 8:30 a.m. I was alone in line and remained so until I was joined by three other rushers just before the box office opened. Why such a slow rush day for this show? It’s a little odd, since during the month of March, Guys and Dolls sold 91.6 percent of its tickets. It was chilly, but being that it’s now April (yay spring!!) it was an easier haul. At 10 a.m., the box office opened and I picked up my $26.50 ticket for what was one of the best seats I’ve ever had for a show, with or without rush. Mezzanine, fourth row, dead center. It was probably one of the few times I’ve ever felt guilty sitting among all those patrons that paid top dollar. At $26.50, with seats like this, and a two-ticket option – this seems to be the rush to beat this season.
With two Broadway revivals, a recent West End production, a classic film etched into fans’ minds, and innumerable high school productions, another Broadway Guys and Dolls without some fresh strokes would seem like a pretty dusty canvas. Praise to director Des McAnuff (Jersey Boys) for recognizing that those strokes only need be tiny ones, not paint splatters.
McAnuff’s Guys and Dolls contains four fresh layers. The first transposes the story to the 1930s, when the characters were originally created by Damon Runyon. With a 20-year retrograde, the typically 50s setting is allowed to take on new appearances. Baring a more Vaudevillian tone, this is a grittier New York, with colors slightly dulled and its denizens a little more smoldering. In short, it’s sexier. The women’s costumes are more haute couteur and every doll on stage is a knockout (garb courtesy of Paul Tazewell). The vision of Miss Adelaide (Lauren Graham) donning a silvery bustier in Act II’s “Take Back Your Mink” is akin to Renee Zellweger’s ensemble in her “Roxy” number in Rob Marshall’s Chicago.
An homage to Runyon serves as McAnuff’s second layer, as the writer himself is ushered into the play as a character. Introduced with his back turned to the audience at curtain up, Runyon (Raymond Del Barrio) sits at his trusty typewriter, giving life to the characters we are about to see. Runyon drifts in and out of the play (as pedestrian, dancer, boat passenger, etc.) and swirls around his characters as a sort of watchful phantom. Runyon as a device is kind of moving, as it reminds the audience of who we have to thank for these beloved characters.
The third layer is not so much retrograde as it is modernization. A big ol’ video screen occupies the center third of the back wall and provides bold, animated scenery by Dustin O’Neill. Although the graphics are slightly a la Nintendo 64, this concept adds a mesmerizing, cinematic dimension to this stage production.
The final layer falls to the responsibility of the actors, most of which take charge of their roles and reinterpret lines in ways they haven’t been before. Interestingly enough, it’s the supporting and ensemble actors that shine brighter than the leads in this production. I first noticed Harry the Horse (Jim Walton), who laughs like… well, a horse. Why has Harry the Horse never possessed equine qualities before? What may have seemed like an all-too-obvious acting choice has been ignored by all previous performers. Well, not anymore. Walton had the audience guffawing with every nay-like chortle. The Hot Box Emcee (Graham Rowat) announces the club’s numbers with immense relish, yet barely moves his mouth – and it’s hysterical. For his rather sweet (but sometimes stagnant) song, “More I Cannot Wish You,” McAnuff ingeniously places Arvide (Jim Ortlieb) behind the piano, performing the instrumentals to his own number. Now Arvide doesn’t have to twiddle his thumbs as he sings to Sarah, nor does she have to freeze her face muscles while staring lovingly at him for three and a half minutes.
Mary Testa (Xanadu) in the usually throwaway role of General Cartwright manages to infuse life and big laughs into the character, especially during “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat,” where the General becomes, shall we say, a naughty girl. That number is also lit on fire by Tituss Burgess (The Little Mermaid) as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, who turns the already rousing number into a gospel volcano. Rounding out the superb ensemble is Glenn Fleshler, who – I never thought I’d say this about – made me feel giddy every time he was on stage. He’s both funny and formidable as Big Jule, and due to his turn in Spring Awakening, I half expected him to slap the spit out of anyone near him. (Also, thank you Glenn Fleshler for finally updating your headshot.)
And then we have the leads. Simply put – three out of four are great. Craig Bierko is everything Sky Masterson should be: suave, witty, and painfully handsome. Lauren Graham’s Adelaide is interesting, as she slows down the typically rapid part. Although her choice of line delivery might come off as irritating to some audiences, she portrays Adelaide as a women who has taught herself to choose her words carefully, perhaps in efforts to curtail the effects that her lack of education has had on her. She nails the sex kitten aspect, and every number she sings hits its mark. Kate Jennings Grant’s Sarah Brown is textbook strait-laced beauty. Although she misses a few opportunities to lasso humor, she garners one of the biggest laughs of the night just by switching two words in the Havana sequence. While finishing her umpteenth dulce de leche, she clumsily, yet thoughtfully declares, “This would be a wonderful way to get milk to drink children!”
Unfortunately, it’s Nathan Detroit that never shines in this production. For someone who has the words “Nathan Detroit” tattooed on the back of his left shoulder (it’s so funny that you think I’m kidding), I wanted to enjoy Oliver Platt’s portrayal more than anyone. With all his jokes falling flat, he never exudes the allure that gives us the answers as to why Adelaide has waited 14 years for him. Nathan doesn’t have to be attractive (we’ve got Sky for that), but he does have to display a magnetism that shows the audience why the gangsters of New York and the city’s top burlesque maven have pledged allegiance to him. Oh well, some things just belong to Frank Sinatra, I guess.
Reinvention doesn’t have to entail an overhaul. Des McAnuff gracefully demonstrates this with Guys and Dolls, which now ends its run of being America’s No. 1 overly-trodden musical. Just a couple dabs of fresh paint is all it takes to rediscover a classic, which is what I did while watching this production. And McAnuff proves it right to the very end, when we see Nathan Detroit working at a hot dog stand called – what else – Nathan’s.