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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

"More I Cannot Wish You":
First Class Guys and Dolls Revival at Paper Mill

Also see Bob's review of Love's Labour's Lost

For its final production of the season, the Paper Mill Playhouse is presenting a first rate new production of that most vernacular of great American musicals, the Frank Loesser-Abe Burrows classic Guys and Dolls.

Basing his Musical Fable of Broadway on the comic short story The Idyll of Sarah Brown by former sports columnist Damon Runyon and adding characters from other Runyon stories, Abe Burrows, discarding earlier drafts by a succession of writers beginning with Jo Swerling, created what is arguably the sharpest, funniest book ever written for the American musical stage. According to Burrows, another famous American wit, author-playwright George S. Kaufman (director of the original Broadway production), made significant contributions to the book.

Composer-lyricist Frank Loesser provided one of the most consistently superlative scores in the history of the American theatre. The integration of the lyrics with the story and Runyonesque dialogue is seamless. The lyrics are pungent and humorous (and warm and beautiful when appropriate).

Burrow's integration of Runyon's story of the romance between high stakes gambler Sky Masterson and Salvation Army "doll" Sarah Brown with his own comic, but heartfelt, tale of the relationship between hustler Nathan Detroit and nightclub chorine Miss Adelaide, and his account of the efforts of the heavily spotlighted gamblers, gangsters and hustlers in pursuit of their pleasure is perfection.

Robert Cuccioli is an ideal Sky Masterson. He exudes a grace and charm which demonstrate why Sarah Brown finds him irresistible. He endows Sky with passion, sly humor and conviction which transcend that usually found in musical comedy performance.

Furthermore, Cuccioli's strong and mellifluous singing is a treat to hear. He follows his beautiful "My Time of Day" with as perfect an "I've Never Been in Love Before" as one could dream about. If only Harvey Weinstein would cast him in the proposed new movie version, Cuccioli would be a major star. His performance makes this a production not to be missed.

Kate Baldwin efficiently hits all her marks as Sarah, but she is a tad mechanical and lets the effort which she puts into her vocals show. Her voice is at its loveliest when she duets with Cuccioli on "I've Never Been in Love Before."

The truly marvelous Karen Ziemba perhaps not so surprisingly makes her biggest impression as Miss Adelaide in her nightclub number "Take Back Your Mink." In this finely costumed and choreographed number, Ziemba is terrifically funny, vocally strong and delightfully sensual. I believe that her "Adelaide's Lament" would be stronger and funnier if she brought both more pain and punch to it.

Michael Mastro is a most enjoyably human and humorous Nathan Detroit. Mastro's Nathan feels closer to the harassed and overwhelmed Nathan first played by Sam Levene than subsequent more bombastic portrayals by comedians such as Alan King and the overly cute and loveable one delivered by Nathan Lane in the 1992 Broadway revival.

Leading the excellent supporting cast, Robert Creighton almost steals the show (and, in this case, it would be grand larceny) as Nicely-Nicely Johnson. His vibrancy, comic timing and intonations of speech are a delight throughout. As he, along with the excellent Robert DuSold (Benny Southstreet), almost stopped the show with their terrific delivery of the title song early on, it came as no surprise when Creighton brought the house down with his beautifully sung and acted performance of the rousing "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat."

Strong, funny performances in character roles are delivered by Tony Cucci as Big Julie and Tia Speros as General Cartwright. Even those familiar with Guys and Dolls might be surprised to see them cleverly playing "opposite" each other. Bob Dorian is a fine Arvide until he falls a bit short on his "More I Cannot Wish You' by sacrificing the emotion and meaning of the lyric to his concentration on delivering dulcet tones.

The settings designed by Tony Walton for the 1992 Broadway revival and built for its national touring company appear to closely emulate the feel of those designed by the legendary Jo Mielziner for the 1950 original. The production thus captures the feel of the musicals of the golden age when the need to have "in one (place)" scenes in front of the curtain while the next major set was put in place was made a virtue with the provision of transitional scenes which were played intimately downstage, lending a varied flow and rhythm to the proceedings. I first noted this when there was a telephone call scene between the mission scene, in which "I'll Know" was sung, and the "Bushel and a Peck" number at the Hot Box.

There is a "costumes coordinated by" credit for Randall Klein. It is probably safe to assume that they, too, are after those designed for the '92 Broadway revival. The outlandish colors and patterns are appropriate and fun. It is entertaining to observe the color coordination of each character's various items of clothing and accessories.

A silly joke from the 1992 revival comes built-in with the scenery. It only serves to interrupt and detract from Sarah and Adelaide's delightful "Marry the Man Today". It is out of synch with the balance of the staging and indicates an unnecessary lack of trust in the material. Perhaps, it could be sent back to Jerry Zaks as a present.

This Guys and Dolls has only a snippet of an overture and entr'acte. One of the pleasures of attending musical theatre is hearing these usually terrific arrangements played live by a full orchestra. In the snippet heard here, there is an effective trumpet "call to the post" from "Fugue for Tinhorns" (not a part of the original overture). If we promise to be good, will Paper Mill give us back our overtures and entr'actes? After all, next season opens with Gershwin.

Director Stafford Arima has otherwise made no discernible cuts to this priceless material. The very talented young Canadian has managed to assemble and direct a cast which captures the New York style patterns of speech immortalized by Damon Runyon better than that of the cast of the 1992 Broadway revival. Credit him with a fresh and lively, fast paced, authentic feeling production.

In Max Preeo's notes for the CD re-issue of the Guys and Dolls original cast album, there is a cautionary tale for today's age of musicals using recycled music. When Frank Loesser demanded a second act reprise of a first act song, director George S. Kaufman said, "Sure, if you let me reprise one of my first act jokes in the second act". The result is that six terrific new songs are introduced in an unflaggingly delightful second act.

It certainly will never be 1950 again. It is as unlikely that the American musical theatre will have another golden age as it is that we will see new Italian operas which match those of Rossini, Verdi and Puccini. New eras produce new works which reflect their times, and hopefully, major non-profit theatres such as New Jersey's august Paper Mill Playhouse will be in the vanguard of the creation, development and presentation of them. It is also the mission of Paper Mill to keep alive our treasured great American musical stage masterworks.

With its current first class production of Guys and Dolls, Paper Mill is admirably fulfilling this mission. Seize the opportunity to see this great classic. By sharing its pleasures with your children and grandchildren, you will provide them with joyful family memories and the start of a lifelong appreciation of the classic American musicals.

Guys and Dolls will continue in performance through July 18, 2004 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office:973-376-4343; online

Guys and Dolls Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser; Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows; directed by Stafford Arima; Cast (in order of appearance): Robert Creighton (Nicely-Nicely Johnson); Robert DuSold (Benny Southstreet); Erick Buckley (Rusty Charlie); Kate Baldwin (Sarah Brown); Bob Dorian (Arvide Abernathy); Robin Lounsbury (Agatha):Christy Boardman (Martha); Jeff Cyronek (Harry the Horse); Steven Bogard (Lt. Brannigan); Michael Mastro (Nathan Detroit); Matt Castle (Angie the Ox, Joey Biltmore); Karen Ziemba (Miss Adelaide); Robert Cuccioli (Sky Masterson); Rachel Bress (Mimi); Tia Speros (General Cartwright); Tony Cucci (Big Julie); Matt Yoder (Waiter); Additional Guys: Gerrard Carter; Jason Davies; Howard Emanuel; Steve Konopelski; Billy Rosa; Eric G. Scalise; Rick Spaans; Brian Shepard. Additional Gals: Laurin Brim; Ashley M. Eichbauer ;Ann George; Mayumi Miguel: Allison Stodola

Be sure to Check the current schedule for theatre in New Jersey

Bob Rendell

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