Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 1, 2009
Guys and Dolls: A Musical Fable of Broadway Based on a Story and Characters of Damon Runyon. Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser. Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Borrows. Directed by Des McAnuff. Choreography by Sergio Trujillo. Music direction, vocal arrangements and incidental music by Ted Sperling. Scenery design by Robert Brill. Costume design by Paul Tazewell. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy. Video design by Dustin O’Neill. Hair & wig design by Charles Lapointe. Fight Director Steve Rankin. Orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin. Cast: Oliver Platt, Lauren Graham, Craig Bierko, Kate Jennings Grant, with Tituss Burgess, Glenn Fleshler, Adam Lefevre, Jim Ortlieb, Steve Rosen, Mary Testa, Nick Adams, Andrea Chamberlain, Raymond Del Barrio, Melissa Fagan, Kearran Giovanni, James Harkness, Lorin Latarro, Benjamin Magnuson, Joseph Madeiros, Spencer Moses, Rhea Patterson, Graham Rowat, Jessica Rush, William Ryall, Marcos Santana, Jennifer Svellia, John Selya, Brian Shepard, Ron Todorowski, Jim Walton, Brooke Wendle.
Though still subtitled “A musical fable of Broadway,” as this show always has since first appearing in 1950, there’s nothing fabulistic (or fabulous) about any part of McAnuff’s treatment. This production, unlike every other, turns on the concept that Damon Runyon, author of the hard-boiled and soft-bellied stories on which librettists Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows and composer-lyricist Frank Loesser constructed the musical, concocted his lovable Times Square pseudo-gangsters and -molls as a tonic for the real world ugliness around him. To hammer home the point, he’s reset the action from 1950 to 1930 and put Runyon onstage, first showing him trying to poke through writer’s block while seated at his typewriter.
Runyon (Raymond Del Barrio) has not been given any lines, but he doesn’t need them. His presence alone speaks volumes about this production and where its devotions lie. I suppose there could be some reason that a musical considered classic in any assessment of the canon - which has won shelves of awards, played to standing-ovation-acclaim everywhere, and to my knowledge never befuddled anyone with its Runyonlessness - needs to be “clarified” this way. But McAnuff has not bothered to elucidate what that is.
If the goal was to make things truer to Runyon, they’re now falser to Loesser (whose lyrics have been appropriately, and anonymously, edited for the occasion), Swerling, Burrows, and George Bassman and Ted Royal (whose characterful mid-century-brass orchestrations and arrangements have been supplanted by supper-club flatulence by the usually reliable Bruce Coughlin and Ted Sperling) - who in the theater carry far more pull. Even if Runyon’s talent were worthier, this change would still rob the show of its propelling irony: that these ignoble denizens can be transplanted from the thuggish 30s to the friendly 50s, and no one around them would bat an eye.
But by subverting the good-natured chaos of the original opening “Runyonland” ballet, by guiding his actors to underplay every scene to the point of lethargy, by engaging Robert Brill to design alternately elaborate and underfunded sets that don’t particularize a New York of any notable color, and by encouraging choreographer Sergio Trujillo to provide dances that smolder rather than explode, McAnuff all but advertises that entertainment is not foremost in his mind. The show isn’t easily conquered - jokes work in spite of their new, suffocating surroundings, and the impossibly few songs that land soar even when attached to the stage with chains - but it’s still the least I’ve ever seen this Loesser.
The lack of a heat-giving star onstage plays no small role. Craig Bierko is handsome and greasy-looking enough for Sky, but displays not a whit of the overcharged recklessness that must convince you this man would bet $100,000 - and forget about a dozen gamblers’ souls - on one roll of the dice. Kate Jennings Grant is a stuffily solid (if oddly belty) Sarah in the earliest scenes, but never melts during the scene in Havana that must show Sarah’s long-latent social and sexual sparks being ignited; Grant never seems much more than mildly tipsy at an office Christmas party.
Oliver Platt sings acceptably, but he’s so reductively reluctant as Nathan that he tends to vanish whenever anyone else is onstage; if Platt’s idea is that Nathan’s life has become one ongoing apology, he needs to not try so hard. Lauren Graham (of TV’s Gilmore Girls) needs to try harder: She’s sharply sexy as take-off artist Adelaide, but never dons a personality with her costumes (the Technicolor work of Paul Tazewell); she barks, whines, and coos, but doesn’t scale the heights of humor Adelaide is capable of, especially with a song as righteously rollicking as the psychosomatically suffering “Adelaide’s Lament.”
Tituss Burgess does challenge him, though, with a levity-free performance of grimacing inappropriateness as Benny’s partner-in-almost-crime, Nicely-Nicely Johnson. Wearing an unconvincing fat suit and affecting a nasal voice that grows old before it completes one syllable, Burgess makes the character a void rather than a constantly bemused outsider of observation. Worse, his second-act confessional solo, “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” has been denatured and de-electrified into just another black gospel number, polluted with riffs that flaunt Burgess’s piercing vocal prowess but grind the show to sputtering halt.
Mary Testa, improbably cast as Sarah’s austere boss, General Cartwright, is also allowed shamelessly anachronistic gadabouting, ad-libbing, and wail-belting in that number. While it does nothing to promote the time period McAnuff finds vital enough to warrant rethinking the whole show, Testa at least has personality and some understanding of how to deliver lines in an amusing way. Even though it’s utterly unrelated to her Cartwright (who has, it should be noted, at most seven minutes of stage time), it’s sufficient to catapult her to the front of this particular company.
One wonders if McAnuff has been blinded by his recent experiences trying to jolt to life underwritten titles such as Dracula and Jersey Boys (truly succeeding with the latter), and ignored the dangers of what that can do to a show that doesn’t need the help. His idea of energy is Dustin O’Neill’s ugly video backdrops, which render this Guys and Dolls’s New York both unduly busy and one-dimensional when they’re not inspiring motion sickness. What he needed to do instead was inspire his cast to kinetic greatness, to help them unlock the frantic hearts that pursue profit and the opposite sex with equal abandon. That’s the only way to do true justice to Swerling, Burrows, Loesser, and - yes - Runyon himself.