Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Guys and Dolls
The show first opened on Broadway in 1950, winning a Tony for best musical, and nearly winning the Pulitzer for Drama (Messrs. Loesser and Burrows did eventually win a Pulitzer twelve years later for How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying). Frank Loesser wrote the stunning music and lyrics, and librettist Abe Burrows takes second billing here, to the original stage adaptor Jo Swerling. Every time I've seen Guys and Dolls before, it never seemed to rise above the desultory ranks of dialect comedy. Now, unexpectedly, the whole thing suddenly comes to life under the guidance of Artistic Director Gary F. Bell. Everything clicks in this production, nearly 70 years after its origins: it has unstoppable momentum, genuine performances, and unforgettable songs.
Today we remember Guys and Dolls as a highly stylized tribute to the short stories of writer Damon Runyon, full of the "dees, dem, and doze" kind of guys, denizens of the New York City of the late 1940s. And all too often (including in the 1955 movie) it has seemed to me to be a lifeless endeavor, like a second-rate Restoration comedy, full of poses and stale cultural references. By rights, it should be even more irrelevant now: how could modern, sensitive, introspective actors like Kevin O'Brien ever hope to inhabit those bigger-than-life, creaky cartoon characters? Well, he does, with an astonishingly articulate performance in the role of Nathan Detroit, as a fresh cross between a young Oliver Hardy and Jackie Gleason. He's lovable even as he slips out of every trip to the altar with nightclub singer Adelaide (Sara Rae Womack) up till the very last minute.
Ms. Womack is likewise filled with nuance, and a few unexpected strategies of song, building in original phrasing seemingly on-the-fly, and then instantly plotting a musical pathway back to the established melody for the next stanza. In lesser revivals a good Adelaide may have to save the whole thing again and again with big revue numbers backed-up by a scantily clad chorus (at the "Hot Box" club). And Ms. Womack and her chorus are highly qualified to do this. But the whole cast is so strong, top to bottom, that she can focus on her own interpretations of character and song instead of worrying about "carrying the show," as they joke in the Forbidden Broadway parody.
It all has an in-the-moment swagger and style, and a comical squirming quality, and we're happy to spend two and a half hours under the glow of Times Square on the brawny, flashy set by Josh Smith. Lauren Smith's costumes are a blessed notch away from the ridiculous. And there's excellent music by Jennifer Buchheit and her well-rehearsed ten-piece band, which is somehow wedged up above it all, behind that looming Manhattan-esque scenery. The light-on-their-feet choreography, with appropriate glimpses of cartoonishness, is by Mike Hodges. Best of all, there's nothing self-conscious about any of it: it's just as if they were discovering it all for the first time (which, at their age, they probably are).
Angela Bubash, lanky and unafraid to be wacky now and then, also finds the anguish and humor in Sister Sarah Brown, the Salvation Army missionary bent on converting the Great White Way; and Jayde Mitchell makes his Stray Dog debut as Sky Masterson, mysterious and inaccessible until his big number, "Luck Be a Lady." Ms. Bubash, a ferocious comic actress, seems to venture into some vocal wear and tear in some of her songs, but elsewhere she shows plenty of fine musical technique. Mr. Mitchell sings very nicely, and showed good stage presence when he rescued a runaway costume piece on opening night, during curtain call, integrating that piece into his own pairing with Ms. Bubash.
I know I'm repeating myself, but at Stray Dog Theatre everyone turns in a leading lady or leading man quality performance. It is a ridiculously talented cast, including Mike Wells as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, whose "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" looks brand new. And Howard S. Bell's "More I Cannot Wish You" is both soaring and softhearted. Stephen Henley and Cory Frank are splendid gangsters, and Zachary Stefaniak uses low-key menace as the exogenous threat from Chicago, Big Jule, to take over the climactic crap game in act two.
Guys and Dolls, through August 24, 2019, at Stray Dog Theatre, Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.straydogtheatre.org
Cast (in order of appearance):
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association