Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The material is top pedigree, with a terrific book by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling, based on the rollicking stories of humorist Damon Runyon. Runyon's numerous tongue-in-cheek tales about gangsters, gamblers and hustlers in Manhattan during the 1920s and 1930s created a mythology of harmless bad guys and ineffectual good guys. His characters speak with an unlikely mixt of hyper-formal English (contractions were verboten) colorful euphemisms, and slang, sounding like low-life individuals striving to come across with a modicum of class. Burrows used these speech patterns in Guys and Dolls to construct a good-humored foundation to support the antic plot and snappy one-liners.
Frank Loesser's amazing score produced such American songbook classics as "If I Were a Bell," "Luck Be a Lady," "I'll Know," "A Bushel and a Peck", and "I've Never Been in Love Before"; the gospel-hued "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat"; and droll comic turns like "The Oldest Established," "Marry the Man Today," "Take Back Your Mink," and a landmark of musical theater, "Adelaide's Lament." The lyrical "More I Cannot Wish You" takes the form of a tenderhearted lullaby, and the title tune is a rollicking burst of energy. Scores this full of knockout numbers are a rarity and a cause for celebration.
The far-fetched story revolves around hustler Nathan Detroit, who operates "the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York," a vocation that has interfered with marrying his fiancée, Adelaide, a headliner at the Hot Box nightclub. After fourteen years of engagement, Adelaide is beginning to question Nathan's intentions. To raise money to float his next game, Nathan places a bet against high-rolling gambler Sky Masterson, a bet that ends up entangling ladies' man Masterson with Sarah Brown, a virginal missionary at the Save-a-Soul storefront mission.
It is plain as day that guys like Nathan Detroit don't get married and guys like Sky Masterson have no interest in square dolls like Sarah Brown. But in the world of Damon Runyon, anything is possible. Adding to the fun are such colorful characters as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Benny Southstreet, Harry the Horse, and Big Jule. Oh, and of course there is an incorrigible detective always one step behind as he tries to catch Nathan Detroit in the act of running his illegal crap game.
Old Log has found a cast who wonderfully inhabit every one of these distinctive characters. The most impressive is Kym Chambers Otto as Adelaide, convincing in her hopeless devotion to her no-good fiancê, delivering a sterling "Adelaide's Lament" in which she reveals that her long-running cold is the result of her long-running engagement. She also hits the spot with her two sassy nightclub numbers and is perfectly matched with Charlie Clark as Nathan Detroit, as she harangues him in "Sue Me." Otto and Clark have a chemistry that makes their paring seem authentic. Clark is outstanding as a weasely con man in and out of the shadows to keep his game going, while commanding the respect of the other no-goodniks on the street.
Eric Sargent has the suave demeanor to convincingly play the heel Sky Masterson, and his velvet-toned voice does justice to two romantic duets with Grace Chermak as Sarah Brown, while rolling out a rousing "Luck Be a Lady."
The supporting characters are nicely cast as well, starting with Nicely-Nicely Johnson, played by Aaron Booth, who stirs things up with "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" and the exuberant title song, performed as a duet with Austin Stole as Benny Southstreet. Kyle Schwartz delivers a menacing quality as Harry the Horse, and stage veteran James Cada is a hoot as humorless Big Jule, who, to make sure he goes home a winner, carries a pair of dice lacking dots: "I memorized where the dots used to be," he assures his nervous accomplices. Martin L'Herault is a winning presence as wise and goodhearted Arvide Abernathy, Sarah Brown's grandfather and fellow missionary, and gives a tender-voiced delivery to the lovely "More I Cannot Wish You." The ensemble works together like clockwork, playing other roles and executing chorale and dance routines with seamless finesse, everything moving briskly, with an eye to keeping the laughs coming and the sentiment afloat by director R. Kent Knutson.
Talya Dozois' choreography is pleasing, enlivening "Luck Be a Lady" (and the gamblers' ballet that precedes it), "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat," and the "Havana" Latin dance sequence (throughout the 1950s, it seems a tango, a mambo, a cha-cha or some other Latin dance number was a staple of musicals). She also provides charming numbers for Adelaide and her backup dancers at the Hot Box, though not nearly as risqué as one would imagine the real thing to be. Loesser's score is in capable hands, played by a seven-piece band led by Kyle Picha. Sara Wilcox has outfitted the cast with the flashy garb associated with Runyon's characters, and Dave Hermann has provided hair and wig design to aptly complete the look. Erik Paulson's scenic design smartly uses just a few elements with great versatility to create the lively streetscape, the Hot Box, the Save-a-Soul mission, a Cuban cafe, and a sewer large enough to accommodate a passel of gamblers shooting craps.
One may wonder how well Guys and Dolls holds up to scrutiny in the #metoo era. Its plot features a woman (doll, in the show's pre-feminist parlance) who tolerates a fourteen year-long engagement to a guy clearly unable to make his commitment stick. The show's other doll is a straight-laced missionary who becomes the object of a bet about whether or not she can be persuaded to go on a date with a well-known high-rolling gambler. On top of that, the guy slips booze into her drink, telling her it is only sweetened milk. All of this is meant to be part of the hilarity of the storyand in fact, as played, it is really funny. Is that reason enough to give it a pass?
The gold-medal level work by Loesser, Swerling and Burrows was written through the lens of a very different time, never meant to belittle or offend anyone. The guys and the dolls in the piece are all created to as foolish, flawed people who win our affections as they wade through the gender roles and courtship customs of their era, which from our vantage point are totally retrograde, to find a promised happily ever after. I say Guys and Dolls is a win-wina document of where we were that enables us to celebrate progress made over the ensuing seven decades (albeit, with much further still to go), while having a terrific time exercising our laugh and smile muscles.
Old Log has done a swell job of staging this golden age beauty.
Guys and Dolls continues through June 16, 2018, at Old Log Theatre, 5185 Meadville Street, Excelsior MN. Tickets are $30.00 - $40.00, student rush tickets: $20.00 with valid IDs the day of performance. Wednesday 1:30 PM matinees are general admission. For tickets call 952-474-5951 or go to www.oldlog.com.
Book: Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows; Music and Lyrics: Frank Loesser; Director: R. Kent Knutson; Conductor: Kyle Picha; Choreography: Talya Dozois; Scenic and Lighting Designer: Erik Paulson; Costume Designer: Sara Wilcox; Sound Designer: Jeff Geisler; Hair/Wig Design: Dave Hermann; Stage Manager: Lizzie Streif.
Cast: Aaron Booth (Nicely-Nicely Johnson), Dorian Brooke (Mimi), Sharayah Lynn Bunce (Abigail), James Cada (Big Julie), Grace Chermak (Sarah Brown), Charlie Clark (Nathan Detroit), Chelsey Grant (Ensemble), Nick Lande (ensemble), Martin L'Herault (Arvide Abernathy), Kym Chambers Otto (Adelaide), Jordan Oxborough (Lt. Brannigan), Dylan Rugh (Rusty), Eric Sargent (Sky Masterson), Kyle Schwartz (Harry the Horse), Austin Stole (Benny Southstreet), Nicolas Sullivan (The Greek), Maisie K. Twesme (General Cartwright), Lydia Wagner (Ensemble), Nikki Zwolski (Ensemble).