Damon Runyon’s colorful New York denizens have set up shop this week in Costa Mesa, and if the revival of Frank Loesser’s Guys And Dolls now playing at the Segerstrom Center For The Arts isn’t the bona fide “Broadway National Tour” we expect on the SCFTA stage (the scenic design in particular doesn’t stand up to Segerstrom standards), it features all-around terrific performances and the most exciting “Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat” I’ve ever seen.
Based on a story and characters created by Runyon and adapted for the musical stage by songwriter Loesser and book writers Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling, Guys And Dolls brings to musical life Runyon’s Fellas And Gals of post WWII Times Square, and a more picturesque cast of characters you won’t find this side of Dogpatch.
There’s feckless but lovable gambler Nathan Detroit (Christopher Swan), ever on the lookout for a new venue for the “oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York.” Meanwhile, Nathan’s fourteen-year-long engagement to Miss Adelaide (Lauren Weinberg), headline dancer at the Hot Box Nightclub, has been going on for so long that it has caused poor Adelaide a psychosomatic cold, quite possibly one of the longest on record.
Among the small-time gamblers who populate “Runyonland” are Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Todd Berkich), Benny Southstreet (Mike McLean), and Rusty Charlie (Dru Serkes) whose “Fugue For Tinhorns” not only expresses their devotion to sniffing out today’s winning horse, but starts Guys And Dolls out with a three-part harmony bang.
Along for comic menace is “mountainous” Chicago kingpin Big Jule (John Galas), with a desire to win that’s every bit as massive as his nickname would suggest, something he makes sure to do by using dice that “ain’t got no spots.” (He remembers where the dots were).
Will Sky be able to persuade Sarah to fly with him to Cuba? Will Nathan take advantage of the couple’s absence to hold tonight’s crap game inside the Save-A-Soul mission? Will Miss Adelaide convince Nathan to marry her and in so doing, finally get over her cold? Will Sarah find out Sky’s real name?
There’s hardly a musical theater aficionado who doesn’t know the answers to these questions, and even those who’ve never seen Guys And Dolls can probably win their own bet by correctly guessing the answers.
The pleasures in Guys And Dolls are not plot-related, but in the memorable characters that Runyon created and that performers have relished bringing to life for the past sixty-five years, as well as in the show’s many song standards and production numbers, which won Michael Kidd a 1950 Best Choreography Tony and provide choreographer Bob Richard and his dance ensemble with numerous lively production numbers to execute with abundant energy and pizzazz.
Guys And Dolls’ most infectious Frank Loesser songs are the upbeat, dancy ones like “The Oldest Established,” “Guys And Dolls,” “Havana” (with its sexy Latin steps), “Luck Be A Lady,” and “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ The Boat.”
Then there are the sparkling specialty numbers performed by Miss Adelaide and the Hot Box Girls—”Bushel And A Peck” and “Take Back Your Mink,” the latter featuring a hilarious G-rated society doll striptease. “Adelaide’s Lament” has made Adelaide one of musical theater’s most colorful supporting characters, no more so than when joining forces with Nathan Detroit for the show-stopping “Sue Me.”
Loesser’s ballads include many now standard ditties, including “I’ll Know,” “My Time Of Day,” “I’ve Never Been In Love Before,” and “More I Cannot Wish You,” in addition to the more upbeat “If I Were A Bell” and “Marry The Man Today.”
Just about every musical I’ve seen at the Segerstrom Center For the Arts has been what’s known as a “Broadway National Tour,” and whether Equity tour (as in the recent Kinky Boots) or non-Equity (the similarly crowd-pleasing Nice Work If You Can Get It), what audiences have gotten has been a recreation of a Broadway director, choreographer, and design team’s vision, i.e. the best American musical theater has to offer.
Big League Productions, Inc. has mounted this non-union Guys And Dolls from scratch, and while Jeffrey B. Moss’s direction is solid, and Richard’s choreography thoroughly professional, albeit not (aside from “Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat”) particularly inspired, neither one’s work reaches the bar set high by the likes of Jerry Mitchell and Kathleen Marshall (who directed-choreographed the aforementioned Broadway tours)—which is what Segerstrom audiences expect from an SCFTA season.
Michael Bottari & Ronald Case’s colorful period costumes (seen through a Damon Runyon lens) are topnotch as are Gerald Kelly’s hair & wig design and Ed Chapman’s sound design, and Charlie Morrison’s expert lighting design adds a professional sheen to scenic designer Randel Wright’s sets. Still, the latter come across as bus-and-truck cheap, lots of scrims with a rather bizarre-looking arrow motif that I just didn’t get. (If ever there were a National Tour that demonstrated just how important a classy, pricey—or at least pricey-looking—set is, this Guys And Dolls is that tour.)
Ultimately, the production’s entertainment value depends on its stars and featured performers’ making the most of the roles they are playing—and make the most of them they do indeed.
The delightful Swan brings just the right quirky charm to Nathan opposite Weinberg’s fabulous Miss Adelaide, the duo’s work here (including her solo/their duet of “Adelaide’s Lament” and “Sue Me”) rivaling the best that have preceded them.
Taylor’s effortless masculine Sky (who just happens to bear a striking resemblance to the movie adaptation’s young Marlon Brando) and Seidl’s pretty, prim, and proper Sarah make them terrific choices to carry on a sixty-five year tradition of gambler-meets-mission doll, in addition to their accomplished vocals.
Tremendously talented Costa Mesa native/USC grad McLean returns home to reprise his 2009 Cabrillo Music Theatre role as Benny opposite this Guys And Dolls not-so-secret weapon, Berkich’s Nicely Nicely done Sensationally Sensationally indeed, and with the handsome-as-all-get-out Serkes lending his own velvet vocals to Rusty Charlie, “Fugue For Tinhorns” is as trio-tastic a treat as it’s ever been.
Galas’s deliciously opposite-of-humungous Big Jule is an absolute delight, and a brilliant casting choice. Cliff Blake (Harry The Horse), Jesse Graham (General Cartwright), and John Ryan (Arvide Abernathy) do tiptop work as well, with special snaps to Graham’s rafters-reaching solo in “Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat,”
Completing the cast are talented (and hard-working) ensemble members Nicolas Baumgartner (Havana Waiter), Skye Bronfenbrenner (Hot Box Girl), Carlos Chang, Carissa Fiorillo (Hot Box Girl), Kelly Green, Valton Jackson, Colin Lee, Brian Martin, Concetta Morabito (Hot Box Girl), Nick Raynor, Gabriel Rodrigues, Maria Alexis Rodriguez (Hot Box Girl), Mya Rose (Mimi, Hot Box Girl), Grant Snuffer, Michael C. Thatcher, and Hilary Werthmann (Hot Box Girl). (Chang and Fiorillo double as swings. Fiorillo is dance captain.)
Musical director Peter Nilsen gets top marks as well, as does the production’s pit orchestra—Dustin Beardsley, Andrew Bezik, Matthew Croft, Nilsen, Chris Ott, Emily Pecoraro, Chris Smucker, Katie Steinhauer, and David White—who sound like quite a few more than nine musicians.
Skip Brevis is music supervisor. Casting is by Alison Franck, CSA. Don S. Gilmore is technical consultant. Daniel Sher is executive director. Andrea Ghersetich.
Though not at the level of SCFTA shows I’ve seen so far this season or in seasons past, Big League Productions, Inc.’s Guys And Dolls nonetheless provides an entertaining evening of marvelously performed musical theater, whether it’s your very first time in Runyon land, or like this reviewer, you’ve been there half-a-dozen times before.
Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
April 14, 2105
Photos: Gary Emord-Netzley, Patrick R. Murphy – PRM Digital Productions