Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
The University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) established the first collegiate musical theater program in the United States fifty years ago. It's fitting that the first show of this 50th season would be a big, old-fashioned musical featuring over forty students on stage. CCM's production of Guys and Dolls showcases the seemingly endless stream of talented performers who go through the program, as well as superb dances and design.
Guys and Dolls premiered on Broadway in 1950 and is based on a number of short stories by Damon Runyon. The show is set in New York City among a world of gamblers seeking a spot away from police intrusion for their high stakes crap game. Nathan Detroit is the game organizer, and he is additionally stressed as his fiancée of fourteen years pressures him to finally get married. Meanwhile, Detroit has bet gambler Sky Masterson a thousand dollars that Sky can't persuade Sarah Brown, the leader of the local Save-a-Soul Mission, to travel with him to Havana, Cuba. Over the span of just a few days, small choices and newly found wisdom lead to major life changes for the primary characters.
The score was written by Frank Loesser (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) and contains numerous showtune classics. "Luck Be a Lady," "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat," "If I Were a Bell," "A Bushel and a Peck," and "Adelaide's Lament," in which the too-long-a-fiancée comedically complains about the emotional and physical toll of waiting so long to be a bride, are just some of the well-known songs from the show, and display Loesser's craft both as a composer and a lyricist.
The book was by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows. It isn't very efficient by today's standards, clocking in at nearly three hours with many extended dance breaks / ballets. However, it does contain plenty of solid laughs, interesting characters, romance and drama, and supports Loesser's score sufficiently.
At CCM, director/choreographer Diane Lala employs active blocking and smooth transitions, which aid the presentation, given the many settings of the show. She's also pulled out multi-dimensional performances from her cast. The athletic dances are varied in style and scope, and help inject energy to the show. Ms. Lala's choreography is best displayed in "Crapshooters Ballet," "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat," and "Havana." Associate musical director Henry Lewers led the sumptuous sounding 41-piece orchestra at the performance attended, with the esteemed Roger Grodsky serving as the show's musical director.
The roles of Nathan and Adelaide are double cast. At the performance attended, Matt Copley portrayed Nathan Detroit, and Anya Axel was Miss Adelaide. Mr. Copley balances a controlled demeanor against the stressful situation of his character with aplomb and is a fine singer. Ms. Axel nails the comedy of the put-upon bride-to-be without going over the top, and brings some welcome depth to the role. She, too, is a strong singer, displaying many colors in her vocal quality throughout. Aria Braswell portrays mission leader Sarah Brown as a kind, accessible, and moral woman without coming across as a prude. She is the most vocally impressive of the cast, showing range and skill with both "If I Were a Bell" and "I'll Know." Frankie Thams is a suave and grounded Sky Masterson, conveying confidence rather than arrogance, and likewise providing great vocals.
As Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Nick Berninger brings down the house with "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat," and CCM alum Dain Alan Paige is endearing as Arvide Abernathy. The large ensemble is to be commended for their committed performances from start to finish.
The handsome scenic design by Thomas C. Umfrid includes a mobile cityscape and many large set pieces covering the many locales of the show. Most impressive is that of the sewers. The lighting by Nicholas Smith is apt and professionally rendered, and the costumes by Reba Senske are fun and varied.
CCM's elegant production of the golden age musical Guys and Dolls celebrates the significant history of the program, as well as the current state and future of it. Talented performers, a top-notch orchestra, splendid design elements, and well-suited staging and dances are sure to please the many devoted theatergoers who support the program so fiercely.
Guys and Dolls, through October 27, 2018, at Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Corbett Auditorium, Cincinnati OH. For more information, visit www.ccm.uc.edu.