Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Guys and Dolls
Guthrie Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Cymbeline, The Pillowman, Five Presidents and Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant

Rodney Gardiner and Kirsten Wyatt
Photo by T Charles Erickson
My earliest association with the words "Broadway musical" was a special sound. That sound was both brassy and sentimental, kind of jazzy but completely accessible, boldly facing the world with determination while providing a safe haven from life's troubles. They were funny throughout, with a book that produced barrels of laughs, but also made pit stops for moments of tenderness to assure we not only have a great time, but that we care about those singing, dancing, mixed up people on stage. It was a cornucopia of musical contradictions that sang its heart out, allowed for sophisticated dance and left provided a feeling of elation.

The best of these shows played the 1940s and into the 1960s, and I would not be the first to suggest that the form reached its zenith in 1950 when Guys and Dolls broke loose on the stage of the 46th Street Theatre—renamed the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where another game-changer called Hamilton now plays, thrilling a new generation of theater lovers, along with us older folks.

The Guthrie has mounted Guys and Dolls, the gold standard for golden age musicals, for a summer run, and the show is as jubilantly brash, tuneful and sentimental as ever. Frank Loesser's classic score, heaped with standards and spot-on novelty numbers, sounds great, with fresh, energetic orchestrations by Darryl Ivey, lushly performed by a ten-piece orchestra (visible on a platform at the rear of the Wurtele's thrust stage) under J. Oconer Navarro's direction. With tunes like "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat," "Luck Be a Lady," "If I Were a Bell," "I've Never Been in Love Before," the robust title song, one of the most hilariously character-perfect specialty numbers ever written, "Adelaide's Lament," and the sharply witty musical squabble "Sue Me", how can you go wrong?

The creative team let their imaginations go wild with elaborate, brightly hued costumes by Kara Harmon that both pay homage to and spoof the 1950s era setting, seizing opportunities to add to the broad humor with outlandish showgirl get-ups and a particularly coy costume for the detective, Lieutenant Brannigan. The Manhattan skyline set by Jason Sherwood practically pops off the stage, shifting with ease to become a night spot in Havana, a sewer used for a high stakes game of craps, or the assembly room of the homespun Save-a-Soul mission. Dawn Chiang's lighting enhances the faux sophistication of the Hot Box Revue night club, the romance of that night in Havana, and the suspense building around the roll of the dice.

The story that all this music, comedy, and lavish design enfolds is based on Damon Runyon's stories of life in the fangless New York underworld of the 1920s and 1930s. The characters are gamblers, thugs, strippers and hangers-on, all trying to scratch out a living and evade the long arm of the law. It is noteworthy that the only one of these individuals who seems capable of anything resembling actual violence is Big Jule, a visiting gangster from Chicago, leaving the New Yorkers who populate the show as lovable, in spite of their underhanded dealings.

Two couples form the core of the plot: Nathan Detroit, who has established an ongoing—and illegal—crap game, always in search of a location out of Lieutenant Brannigan's watchful eyes, and Adelaide, the star attraction at the Hot Box, who is fed up with waiting for Nathan to marry her after being engaged for fourteen years. The other couple are thrown together in the course of the show: Sky Masterson, a suave high-stakes gambler who gets tricked into a bet that he can't get Sarah Brown, the prim, unyielding leader of the Save-a-Soul mission whose band marched through Times Square playing "Follow the Fold", to fly off to Havana with him for dinner. Throw in Sarah's determination to keep the struggling mission from being shut down by regional chief, General Cartwright, and Big Jule's insistence on Chicago-style craps rules, and you have yourself a story: goofy and contrived, but craftily plotted with so much good will that we readily surrender to it.

Director Kent Gash has stated his desire to bring Guys and Dolls in step with today's sensibilities nearly 70 years after it first opened, with changing views of women pinning their hopes for happiness on hapless men, and its affectionate attitude toward underworld characters. I am not certain he wholly succeeds in this effort, though the cavalcade of design effects and breathless, inventively staged dance numbers, choreographed by Dell Howlett, give the show a contemporary sheen.

What comes closest to nudging the plot toward 2019 is an extra portion of intelligence given to the two leading ladies. Typically, Adelaide is presented as a complete ditz, but here, in a powerhouse performance by Kirsten Wyatt, we see her intelligence and her determination to take control over this engagement that is reaching its expiration date. Similarly, Sarah Brown as written makes a 180 degree turn after one night in Havana and a few highly alcoholic beverages, a shift that requires suspension of disbelief. Olivia Hernandez gives a vibrant portrayal of the missionary as knowing exactly what she is doing, letting herself loose, yes, but not being led astray. These changes in focus do not alter the thrust of the plotline or alter the outcome in any way, but make it easier to accept the default premise, that these guys and those dolls need each other.

To state the degree to which these actresses outshine their male counterparts is only to heap praise upon Hernandez, with a beautiful voice for songs like "If I Were a Bell" and "I'll Know," and Wyatt, who brilliantly maintains that air of intelligence while mining the comic gold embedded in the role of Adelaide. That said, Rodney Gardiner is terrific as beleaguered Nathan Detroit, put-upon by his fiancée, by the gamblers and by the cops, and just trying to catch a break. As Sky Masterson, Jeremiah James has the suave looks and sultry voice to make his boast of being able to get "any doll he wants" to go to dinner with him credible. He brings immense warmth to an introspective moment singing "My Time of Day," segueing into the sweeping romantic proclamation that "I've Never Been in Love Before."

The rest of the cast all do swell work, with kudos especially to Peter Thomson's wise and tender-hearted Arvide Abernathy, who councils Sarah on love ("More I Cannot Wish You"), Regina Marie Williams as upright General Cartwright who lets loose when the prayer meeting heats up, Jon Andrew Hegge as a super-limber Harry the Horse, and Karen Wiese-Thompson, a veteran of Twin Cities stages making her Guthrie debut and a brilliant choice to play the comically menacing Big Jule. Only Justin Keyes, as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, falls short of the requisite zip.

The hardworking ensemble creates the throngs of Manhattan streets and execute the dance numbers with boundless energy, reaching a crescendo with the pull-out-all-the-stops staging of "Sit Down, You're Rockin the Boat" that totally stops the show with hurrahs from the audience.

I admit I was a but unnerved by the show's opening, with the ensemble enacting a frenetic picture of New York hubbub as the orchestra plays the generous overture. It feels like too much commotion, as if the creative team might not have confidence in their brilliant material to stand on its own. But once the show proper begins, with three of Nathan's cronies waxing musically over their picks for the horse races in "Fugue for Tinhorns," all is right in this world called Runyonland. From there, it never falters, fast-paced, droll and delirious.

This production of Guys and Dolls soars on its energy, imagination, and commitment to the joyful exuberance of those golden age musicals, especially one as near-perfect as this one. I accept the reality that not everyone is a fan of the genre—but if you are such a non-believer, you probably would not still be reading this review. So, if you have made it through to my closing judgment, here it is: Guys and Dolls is a big, fat, jubilant, musically thrilling hit.

Guys and Dolls, through through August 25, 2019, at the Guthrie Theater, Wurtele Thrust Stage, 818 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets from $34.00 to $93.00. Seniors (65+) and full time college students (with ID) - $3.00 - $6.00 discount. Public Rush for unsold seats 15 - 30 minutes before performance, $25.00 - $30.00, cash or check only. Blue Star tickets for military personnel, veterans and their families (up to four tickets)- 15% off full price. Gateway tickets for eligible low-income patrons, $5.00. For tickets call 612-377-2224 or go to

Book: Abe Borrows and Jo Swerling, based on a story and characters by Damon Runyon: Music and Lyrics: Frank Loesser; Director: Kent Gash: Choreographer: Dell Howlett; Music Director: J. Oconer Navarro; Scenic Design: Jason Sherwood; Costume Design: Kara Harmon; Lighting Design: Dawn Chiang; Sound Design: Hidenori Nakajo; Orchestrator: Darryl Ivey; Dramaturg: Carla Steen; Voice and Dialect Coach: Dawn-Elin Fraser; Fight Director: Aaron Preusse; Intimacy Consultant: Lauren Keating; Stage Manager: Lori Lundquist; Assistant Stage Managers: Jason Clusman and Nate Stanger; Assistant Director: Sheena Janson Kelley; Assistant Music Director: Denise Prosek; Assistant Choreographer: Tara Forseth; Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.; Design Assistants: Polly Bilski (costumes), Ryan Connealy (lighting), Lisa Jones (costumes), Reid Rejsa (sound) and Tony Stoeri (lighting).

Cast: Robert O. Berdahl (Lt. Brannigan/ waiter), Katie Bradley (Mimi/ensemble), Andy Frye (Angie the Ox), Rodney Gardiner (Nathan Detroit), Jon Andrew Hegge (Harry the Horse), Olivia Hernandez (Miss Sarah Brown), Jeremiah James (Sky Masterson), Justin Keyes (Nicely-Nicely Johnson), Joel Liestman (Benny Southstreet), Eric Morris (Rusty Charlie/ensemble), Peter Thomson (Arvide Abernathy), Angela Timberman (Agatha/Joey Biltmore/ensemble), Janet Hayes Trow (Martha/ensemble), Karen Weise-Thompson (Big Jule), Regina Marie Williams (General Matilda B. Cartwright), Kirsten Wyatt (Miss Adelaide).

Ensemble: Mathias Anderson, Isis Bruno, Fernando Collado, Taylor Collier, Gabrielle Dominique, Mark Andrew Garner, Caroline Innerbichler, Marty Lauter, Renni Anthony Magee, Andrea Mislan, Adam Vanek.