“Fresh” and “new” are probably not the first words that spring to mind when you think about the 65-year-old Broadway classic Guys And Dolls, that is unless the Guys And Dolls you’re thinking about is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival revival now wowing audiences at Beverly Hills’ Wallis Annenberg Center For The Performing Arts.
Though admittedly less brilliantly innovative than last year’s Into The Woods (a show that lends itself by its very nature to reinvention), Guys And Dolls nonetheless reveals the miracles that can be wrought with a director as imaginative as Mary Zimmerman and a cast of Oregon Shakes vets as gifted at acting as they are at song-and-dance.
It helps that the material being brought to fresh new life has stood the test of time better than just about any other late 1940s/early ‘50s Broadway classic.
Based on a story and characters created by Damon Runyon and adapted for the musical stage by songwriter Frank Loesser and book writers Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling, Guys And Dolls brings to musical life Runyon’s Times Square Fellas And Gals, and a more picturesque cast of characters you won’t find this side of Dogpatch.
There’s high-rolling gambler Sky Masterson (Jeremy Peter Johnson), who wagers he can convince virginal Save-A-Soul Mission “Doll” Sarah Brown (Kate Hurster) to join him on an overnighter to Havana.
There’s feckless but lovable gambler Nathan Detroit (Rodney Gardiner), ever on the lookout for a new venue for the “oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York.”
There’s Miss Adelaide (Robin Goodrin Nordli), headline dancer at the Hot Box Nightclub, whose fourteen-year engagement to Nathan has been going on for so long that it’s caused the poor chantoose a psychosomatic cold, quite possibly one of the longest on record.
Among the small-time gamblers who populate “Runyonland” are Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Daniel T. Parker), Benny Southstreet (David Kelly), and Rusty Charlie (Joe Wegner) 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 (with a couple of shoeshine boys thrown in this time for good measure).
Along for comic menace is “mountainous” Chicago kingpin Big Jule (Richard Elmore), whose desire to win is every bit as massive as his nickname would suggest, something he makes sure to do by using dice that “ain’t got no spots.”
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, beginning with the justly famed show-opening “Runyonland,” which sets the New York City street scene, introduces Guys And Dolls’ lead characters, and provides audiences with their first glimpses of the quirky charm that marks choreographer Daniel Pelzig’s dance steps throughout.
“Runyonland” also offers us our first look at Daniel Ostling’s minimalist scenic design (miniature movable models take the place of proscenium high NYC skyscrapers) and Mara Blumenfeld’s spiffy period costumes, 1930s this time round, designs which establish a look that sets this Guys And Dolls apart from others.
So too does the production’s scaled-down but still sensational seven-piece orchestra under music director-orchestrator-pianist-conductor Doug Peck’s expert baton.
Pelzig’s distinctive choreography is a standout in such iconic full-cast numbers as “The Oldest Established,” “Guys And Dolls,” “Havana” (with its sexy Latin steps), “Luck Be A Lady,” and “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ The Boat,” the latter in particular inspiring high-decibel audience cheers at the Wallis.
Add to this 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, and you’ve got some of the most refreshingly original choreography I’ve seen all year.
Still, if there’s anything that makes Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s take on Guys And Dolls stand head-and-shoulders above lesser Loesser revivals, it is the production’s Broadway-caliber cast, whose takes on characters we’ve seen again and again make us feel we are meeting them for the first time.
Johnson’s dynamic, sexy Sky Masterson is everything you want Sky to be, and when he sings “I’ve Never Been In Love Before,” for once you truly believe it. Hurster makes Sarah a dormant volcano just waiting for the right man to erupt, as it does in her memorable “If I Were A Bell.” A particularly memorable Gardner reinvents Nathan as a ball-of-fire pixie with moxie to spare.
Best of all is Nordli’s Adelaide, who throws in just enough of the battleaxe to make Nathan’s fiancée more than simply your average everyday bimbo ditz. (Nordli’s duets of “Sue Me” with Gardner and “Marry The Man Today” with Hurster are as good as it gets.)
Supporting performances are uniformly sensational, with special snaps to Parker’s bouncy, bubbly Nicely-Nicely and to K.T. Vogt’s hilariously volatile (that’s putting it mildly) General Matilda B. Cartwright.
Completing the Guys And Dolls’ superb cast (many of whom understudy larger roles) are Richard Howard (Arvide Abernathy), Tony DeBruno (Harry the Horse), Robert Vincent Frank (Lt. Brannigan), Al Espinosa (Angie the Ox), Eugene Ma (Joey Biltmore), Christopher Henry Young (Liver Lips Louie/Gambler), Jonathan Luke Stevens (Society Max/Gambler), and the cute and sassy quartet of Alyssa Birrer, Kristin Glaeser, Briawna Jackson, and Britney Simpson as Miss Adelaide’s Hot Box Girls.
Erin O’Connor and dance captain Sean Jones are swings. L.A. talents Tyler Matthew Burk and Jeff Skowron join the Oregon visitors as understudies.
Scenic designer Ostling makes imaginative use of hidden upstage windows and a stageful of Cuban beach balls. T.J. Gerckens’ lighting and Ray Nardelli’s sound design are both topnotch as well.
Additional deserved program credit goes to casting director Joy Dickson, voice and text director Susan Sweeney, fight director U. Jonathan Toppo, production stage manager Jeremy Eisen, and assistant stage manager Roxana Khan.
As they proved last year with Into The Woods, when Oregon Shakespeare Festival revives a musical classic like Guys And Dolls, audiences don’t just sit back and enjoy, they stand up and cheer, which leads me to ask just one question:
What have you folks up north got for us next year?
Bram Goldsmith Theater, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills.
December 4, 2105
Photos: Kevin Parry for the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts