Entertainment » Theatre

Guys and Dolls

by Steve Weinstein
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Mar 6, 2009
Guys and Dolls
  (Source:Carol Rosegg)

The current revival of Guys and Dolls on Broadway is really two separate shows. The first is deadly dull, uninspired and insipid. The second allows the score--one of the best ever written--to sing, occasionally to soar.

Unfortunately, the first act is the bad one. I saw some people leave in disgust at the intermission, which is too bad, because if they had stuck it out, they would have enjoyed a full-throttle old-fashioned Broadway musical.

Like most of the critics who have panned this production, I saw the now-legendary 1992 show, which notably starred an elegant Peter Gallagher as Sky Masterson, and Nathan Lane and Faith Prince as the forever-engaged Nathan Detroit and Adelaide. In this production, Craig Birko plays Sky Masterson even more woodenly than Marlon Brando infamously did in the film version.

As the Salvation Army worker he woos, Kate Jennings Grant is even worse. Wooden and as stiff as her hair (I hope for her sake that's a wig), she comes across as too old and definitely too steely.

In the other two key roles, Oliver Platt plays the street hustler Nathan Detroit like a used-car salesman. Lauren Graham is too young and too fresh for the jaded Adelaide, although she rises to the part in the second act. They do a lovely duet in the Automat to "Sue Me." (It's not Graham and Platt's fault that I'll never get Frank Sinatra in the film singing that to Vivian Blaine out of my head.)

The director, Des McAnuff, makes some odd choices. Instead of letting the orchestral prelude play out in peace, he mashes it up with a choreographed montage of Damon Runyon, the writer whose characters provide the basis for the show, witnessing the goings-on in 1930s Times Square. This is familiar territory for anyone who's seen old Warner Bros. musicals like "42nd Street" or "Gold Diggers of 1933."

There are other questionable decisions that mar the production. The sets reflect the opening number's title, "Runyonland." Instead of the sleaze of the Deuce, we get a Disneyfied Times Square of pretty petty thieves, ladies of the evening and beat cops. They move with mechanical precision, but they're too mechanical; there's no funk.

Paul Tazewell's costumes also lack soul. Other than the trim chorus boys, the properly garish suits hang poorly on the men. The women fare a little better. Even the lighting is too harsh. And the moving backdrop, of scenes of New York in the 1930s, has all of the immediacy of a videogame.

At this point in time, I feel like Lear shouting into the wind to complain about miking the singers at a Broadway show, but this is one of the worst instances I've encountered in some time. It's often difficult to tell who's singing.

That's not to say there aren't virtues here. Despite not rivaling the '92 production, some members of the cast do shine. Oddly enough, it's the bit parts that really make a difference. Jim Walton is wonderfully equine as Harry the Horse. In a few notes added on to "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat," gay fave Mary Testa nearly walks away with the show as the Salvation Army general. Jim Ortlieb also steps up to the plate when he plays piano during the ineffably beautiful "More I Cannot Wish You."

I'll never forgive Birko, however, for throwing away "My Time of Day" or Grant for not selling "If I Were a Bell." And what's with the opening number? It seems that "Fugue for Tinhorns" is cut short, which is a real shame. From those great opening lines ("I've got the horse right here/His name is Paul Revere"), the song should move along like an operatic ensemble piece.

Part of that is the fault of Tituss Burgess and Steve Rosen, as Nicely Nicely and Benny Southstreet. Burgess mugs like he's playing to a TV camera, and Rosen's Brooklynese is more Kotter than Runyon. But Burgess does deliver in his great Second Act number "Sit Down."

The real showstopper is the one that has always been the show's signature piece, the balletic craps shooters to the unsung "Luck Be a Lady." Sergio Trujillo's choreography really soars here, along with a nice montage when Sky takes Sarah to Havana (with some help from fight director Steve Rankin).

It's significant that this, the heart of show, is done by an all-male chorus. The guys really rule this show, with the dolls along for the ride. But the genius of Loesser, along with book writers Joe Swerling and Abe Burrows, is to take Runyon's street characters and elevate them to the level of allegory.

Two parallel romances, one comic, the other purely romantic, is a trope as old as Roman comedy. But the relationship of Sky and Sarah, his Salvation Army gal, runs pretty deep. Sarah brings out the lofty side of Sky that was in there waiting (he spends his off hours reading the Gideon Bible in hotel rooms). He brings out the inner sexpot in her. If it's not exactly Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, it's just as symmetrical.

Even more, the show exists on multiple levels. There's the fun side of these penny-ante hoods, with their precise-but-mangled King's English (so well sent up in Cole Porter's "Brush Up Your Shakespeare"). But there's also a profound struggle not so far under the surface.

Expressed as God vs. the devil, domesticity vs. high-flying bachelorhood, and honor-among-thieves vs. a world without any honor, the conflict is never reduced to superficiality. It's a complex struggle as the Salvation Army general knows when she compliments Sarah for using gambling as a way to bring gamblers to the Lord.

When Sky bets his money against the men's souls, it's a concept that John Milton couldn't have bettered. The beauty of this "Guys and Dolls" is that--at its best, in the second act (mostly)--we once again can experience the glories of this wonderful score and book.

Nederlander Theater
208 West 41st Street
(212) 307-4100

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).


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