BWW Review: Sassy, Sweet, Colorful, MSMT Launches Larger-Than-Life GUYS AND DOLLS
Part of the perennial appeal of Frank Loesser's Guys and Dolls lies in the larger-than-life aura of its Damon Runyonesque roots - its fantasy land of gangsters and dolls, Broadway in the Prohibition era, and memorable characters who sing, dance, and deliver wise-cracks. Maine State Music Theatre's new production, the fifth in the company's history, brings this classic to life with a vivid freshness that embraces both the grand framework of the story and the intimacy of its essential heart. Sweet, sassy, and colorful, soaring and ambitious, MSMT's second show of the 2017 season is breathtakingly daring in the way it utilizes all the company's resources to their fullest, all the while that it demonstrates to a new generation why Guys and Dolls both invented and broke the mold for American musical theatre.
Talking about the content of a musical that premiered on Broadway in 1950 may seem absurd, but the very fact that Guys and Dolls has continued to entrance decades of audiences bears comment. Not only are the Damon Runyon storyline and Abe Burrows/Jo Swerling book filled with warmth, humor, clever twists, inimitable jargon, and endearing characters, but Frank Loesser's score is one of the masterpieces of the Broadway canon. Add to that the opportunity for lively choreography and characterful locales, and you have a delightful recipe for the perfect show!
Directed and choreographed by DJ Salisbury, MSMT's new production, the first in sixteen years, is huge in every way - not just in size, though it employs a cast of thirty-three and commands all the resources of the Pickard Theater - but huge in heart, spirit, and impact. Like last year's Fiddler on the Roof and Mamma Mia! or the earlier Music Man, Evita, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, it redefines what this company in this intimate theatre can accomplish and it does it in aces!
Salisbury stages the production employing first masterful large brush strokes which he then colors in with careful detail. He creates the perfect balance between cartoon overtones and genuine reality. Perhaps more than in any other Guys and Dolls in recent memory, he elicits from the actors a believable humanity, even vulnerability that perfectly balances the dizzy comic moments. He paces the two and one-half hour show briskly, creates thrilling choreography, and demonstrates a complete understanding of the style of the piece. The Runyonland opening sequence seems as delightfully novel as it must have long ago; the Havana scene is truly clever, and the crap shooters ballet is mesmerizing in its athleticism and sheer verve.
Guys and Dolls is a show with a masterwork score that requires skilled musicians and a firm sense of the idiom. Music Director Brian Cimmet has helped shape fine vocal performances throughout, and he conducts the nine-person pit orchestra with soaring abandon, bringing out all the colors of the score and shaping the melodic line through the overture and entr'actes with cantabile elegance. A special cameo highlight is Steve Galiastro's (Nicely Nicely) on stage trombone solo in the second act.
The production is large as well, but cleverly adapted to the limitations of the Pickard's smaller stage. Designed by Robert Andrew Kovach, it makes use of a series of painted drops that gain three-dimensionality in the atmospheric lighting of Annemarie Duggan. These, together with some large props and roll-on units - which move with brisk efficiency - create the period exteriors and interiors of Broadway, the mission, the Hot Box, and Havana. Ryan Moller's costumes and Gerard James Kelly's wigs complete the illusion, dazzling not only with their sheer number and variety, but also with their boldly colored palette and eye-catching silhouettes. Shannon Slaton's sound design adds to the overall spectacular quality, balancing the large cast and orchestra beautifully. And the entire team is expertly coordinated by Stage Manager Mark Johnson.
The list of iconic actors who have inhabited these roles is long and etched in memory, so it is no small tribute to be able to say that MSMT's cast - principals and ensemble - have accomplished the remarkable feat of making these roles their own. One of the casting/directorial choices that works especially well in this production is the well-defined contrast between the two romantic couples, Adelaide and Nathan and Sky and Sarah. James Beaman is a lovable Nathan Detroit - a small time gangster with a big heart, an ironic sense of humor, and a wily knack for survival. Feckless as his character is, Beaman is so engaging that one understands why Adelaide is smitten, and he delivers the vocal goods in his two numbers, especially the duet "Sue Me." Charis Leos, making her role debut as Miss Adelaide, is everything anyone could wish for in the role. She is funny, sexy, vulnerable, tough, feisty, and totally empathetic. Moreover, she brings to the part her powerhouse vocal resources - a rich dark, secure tone, strong belt, and a delivery of text that is original and refreshing. Kristen Hahn is a luminous Sarah Brown, who makes the mission sergeant credible and appealing. Neither naïve, nor a prude, she is simply a young woman who is searching for her path in life and who finds it in the most unlikely circumstances. Vocally, Hahn's lovely lyric soprano provides some of the evening's highlights in "If I Were a Bell" and the duets, "I'll Know" and "I've Never Been In Love Before." Dashingly partnered by Stephen Mark Lukas' Sky Masterson, the couple occupies the emotional epicenter of the piece. Lukas, a younger-than-often-portrayed Masterson, makes a commanding presence as the jaunty gambler. In both the character's physicality - his self-pleased, easy stride and imposing way of filling a space - and in his original cadencing of the familiar lines, Lukas's Sky demands our attention. Vocally, he, too, delivers some fine lyrical singing in the above-mentioned duets and in his honeyed "My Time of Day." But it is his powerful and seductive "Luck Be a Lady Tonight" that crowns the performance.
The work of these four principals alone would be worth the trip to Maine, but then there is the outstanding roster of supporting actors and ensemble. Steve Gagliastro makes a sympathetic Nicely Nicely Johnson and delivers a rousing "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat." Raymond Marc Dumont as Rusty Charlie and Brad Bradley as Benny Southstreet complete the lively song and dance trio for the "Fugue for Tinhorns" and "Guys and Dolls" and delight with some spirited tap dancing. Glenn Anderson as Arvide Abernathy provides a touching cameo with his sweetly sung "More I Cannot Wish You," while Danny Rutigliano is an amusingly deadpan, thuggish Big Jule. Joe Gately is an imposing but continually outsmarted Lt. Brannigan; Danny Arnold as Harry the Horse (and Joey Biltmore) and John Edmonds as Angie the Ox round out the quirky gambler contingent. Lilly Tobin, Aleka Emerson, and Samantha Schiffman effectively switch personas from Hot Box girls to mission "dolls," while Cathy Newman offers a comic twist on General Cartwright.
Each of the large ensemble (see full list) cleverly individualizes their multiple roles and dances with high-flying, athletic ease, moving idiomatically among the styles of the choreography from Latin to balletic to acrobatic. Together they form a collective of stars.
Following on the heels of its sold-out Always, Patsy Cline, MSMT's Guys and Dolls offers a stunning second act in this 59th season. As ambitious as anything they have produced, Guys and Dolls pays tribute to the artistic leadership and vision of the company, which in turn inspires the entire cast, crew, and creative team. As one of the stars remarked in an earlier interview, "MSMT runs with the precision of a fine Swiss watch." Precision yes, indeed, for that is what accounts for the professionalism, but also passion which makes this theatre such a beloved treasure for the region
Guys and Dolls ensemble: Mike Baskowski, Ronnie Bowman, Jr., Michael Carrier, Glenn Davis, Zach Eisenberg, Kyle Laing, Brian Liebson, Kevin Murakami, John Pletka, Matty Rickard (dance captain), Mickey White, Cameron Wright, Natalie Bellamy, Rebecca René Kelley, Gerianne Pérez, Sara Sargent, Tracy Sokat.
Photos courtesy of MSMT, Roger Duncan, photographer
Guys and Dolls runs at the Pickard Theater, 1 Bath Rd., Brunswick, ME, from June 28-July 15, 2017. www.msmt.org 207-725-8769