BWW Reviews: Studio Tenn's sophomore season opens with sparkling GUYS AND DOLLS

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Studio Tenn launches its eagerly anticipated sophomore season in its new home at the Franklin Theatre, kicking off the company's second act with a sparkling revival of one of musical theater's best-loved shows: Guys and Dolls, the "musical fable of Bradway" based on a story and characters of Damon Runyon, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows.

Directed with his trademark style and wit by company artistic director Matt Logan, Guys and Dolls represents yet another confident, beautifully conceived musical production from Studio Tenn, featuring a blend of local stage stars and Broadway veterans, epitomizing the company's pledge to utilize the best talents of the theater world to bring the very best to Middle Tennessee audiences. Led by John Hickman (as Sky Masterson) and Jared Bradshaw (as Nathan Detroit), both of whom are veterans of Jersey Boys, and who are paired with two of Music City's best-known leading ladies - Carrie Tillis (as Sarah Brown) and Laura Matula (as Miss Adelaide). The result? Logan's cast is filled with an embarrassment of riches of this city's stage talents, including the scene-stealing Patrick Waller, whose Nicely-Nicely Johnson more than holds his own with the Broadway vets.

Studio Tenn's beautiful new home at the Franklin Theatre notwithstanding, perhaps most noteworthy about this production is the superb music direction of Stephen Kummer, who leads his eight-piece orchestra (which includes some of the city's best-known players) through the show's memorable score, featuring new jazz- and big band-inspired orchestrations by Kummer that help to elevate the time-honored music to new heights. Loesser's extraordinary score has never sounded better, particularly the new takes on Act Two's "Luck Be A Lady" and the first act's "I've Never Been in Love Before," and the rollicking, gospel flavor of "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat" that gives Waller the showcase he deserves and which sent the audience's socks flying on opening night. Yet while Kummer's new orchestrations breathe new vitality into the musical pieces, they never detract from the melodies one has come to love since the musical's 1950 premiere on Broadway; instead, it simply repositions the score, if you will, for a more discerning and more demanding contemporary audience.

Micah Shepard's choreography is clever, imaginatively making use of the relatively shallow playing area of the Franklin Theatre stage and giving the gifted dancers in his cast (particularly Billy Ditty and Lauri Gregoire, two of Nashville's finest choreographers) the opportunity to strut their stuff and show us what we've been missing, while presenting a stylish visual aesthetic that dovetails nicely into director Logan's overall production design. Logan's practiced eye delivers a visually compelling show, making use of creative and colorful projections to convey the setting of each of the scenes, intelligently avoiding the urge to clutter up the stage with too many set pieces and props. Tony Williams' lighting design is well-conceived and beautifully realized, adding to the atmospheric trappings of the production (his lighting of the after-midnight world of Guys and Dolls is particularly effective).

While Waller clearly steals the show out from under the principals (Don't believe me? You should have heard the thunderous applause that greeted him during the curtain call!), thanks to his remarkable performance of "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat," which with the able assistance of the entire ensemble allows him to cart off the entire production lock, stock and barrel - he really is just the icing on the cake that's served up by the creative team in Guys and Dolls.  

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It fact, in all of Studio Tenn's productions to date, it has been Logan's remarkable eye for casting the right actor in the right role that truly has distinguished those shows and which has resulted in the company's ever-growing and increasingly loyal audience support, not to mention the company's glowing reputation among actors.

Laura Matula's Miss Adelaide is a delight, allowing the talented actress and singer to show off her exquisite comic timing while displaying her considerable vocal pyrotechnics. Matula plays the role to the hilt, never approaching stereotype while imbuing Miss Adelaide with a lovable charm that enables her to win the audience's collective heart from her first moment onstage. Her performance of "Adelaide's Lament" is as terrific as any in recent memory, and her duet with Bradshaw on "Sue Me" is one of the evening's brightest moments. Bradshaw, playing opposite her as Nathan Detroit, is a charming rogue, showing off his own comic and musical abilities throughout the show, particularly in Act One's performance of "The Oldest Established" and the aforementioned "Sue Me."

The beautiful Tillis, a member of country music royalty, shows off her versatility with another winning musical theater role as the prim and proper, although not altogether priggish, Sarah Brown. Tillis' chemistry with her leading man - John Hickman is the handsome Sky Masterson - is palpable and the couple's ultimate onstage pairing plays out believably and convincingly as a result. Hickman's focused performance presents a Sky who is likable and engaging, the very embodiment of the quintessential musical theater leading man, and his "Luck Be A Lady" will leave you wanting more.

Among the ensemble, Ryan Wotherspoon's Benny Southstreet is a standout, as is Billy Ditty's Harry-the-Horse (how delightful is to see Ditty given the chance to show off more of his many talents?), Jeremy Childs' mildly menacing Big Jule, Corey Caldwell's long-suffering Lt. Brannigan, and Matt Carlton's paternal Arvide Abernathy (his sweet rendition of  "More I Cannot Give You" is a highlight). Vicki White makes the most of her onstage time with a terrific take on General Carwright, the leader of the mission where Sarah plies her trade, and adds to the religious fervor of "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat" with her well-timed histrionics.

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As the first stage production to be presented in the newly refurbished and impressively outfitted Franklin Theatre (the venue's acoustics are nothing short of dazzling, although the lobby is too small by half for the large audiences live theater performances are certain to attract), which sparkles like a shiny new rhinestone brooch on one of Miss Adelaide's glittery gowns, Guys and Dolls launches another, laudable chapter in the Studio Tenn story that will likely draw more theater-lovers to all the stages to be found in Williamson County for years to come.

Guys and Dolls. Based on a story and characters of Damon Runyon. Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser. Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows. Directed and designed by Matt Logan. Music direction by Stephen Kummer. Choreographed by Micah Shepard. Produced by Jake Speck. Presented by Studio Tenn at the Franklin Theatre. Through August 28. For details, visit the company website at www.StudioTenn.com.

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


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