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BWW Reviews: GUYS AND DOLLS Rocks The Boat in a Big Way At EPAC

In 1951, there was no Pulitzer Prize for drama. There are few and far between of those, and rarely do they go to musicals. The reason for no award was that the House Un-American Affairs Committee was in full swing - this was the McCarthy era - and they didn't want the prize to go to GUYS AND DOLLS. Abe Burrows, who wrote the book, was suspect, though lyricist/composer Frank Loesser wasn't. It didn't matter - it walked off with Tonys aplenty that year, just as it has with most of its frequent revivals. It didn't win in 2009, its last Broadway revival, but it's done more than creditably, as have its directors and casts. George S. Kauffman, Robert Alda, Stubby Kaye, Nathan Lane, Faith Prince, Julia Mackenzie - all have been associated with the perennial hit.

This year, Entertainment Weekly declared GUYS AND DOLLS the greatest musical ever - a debatable point, as there are still many who'd hold that the title belongs to GYPSY, and that fold includes this author. (To be fair, Frank Rich and Nora Ephron, among others, engaged in a debate that determined these two musicals and SWEENEY TODD to be the three greatest American musical shows, in no particular order.) Whether or not it's the greatest musical of all time or not, it's at Ephrata Performing Arts Center right now, directed by Edward R. Fernandez, and it is definitely the best piece of musical theatre that's been on a community theatre stage in the region in 2013. (Second best? That has to go to CABARET at York Little Theatre. Chad-Alan Carr's Alan Cumming-inspired Emcee was one of the best performances on any stage in the area this season.)

It's 1920's New York, of course, the land of Damon Runyon, booze, bookies, and the Salvation Army. Bob Checchia and Nick Smith headline as Nathan Detroit and Sky Masterson, the host of the oldest established permanent floating craps game in New York and its highest-staked roller, respectively. Checchia and Smith, in the looks department, hearken to the popular (if wildly-deviating-from-the-play) movie's casting of Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando, but there are definite distinctions, not the least of which is that Nick Smith can sing every bit as well as Brando can't - and sing he does. Whether in a duet with missionary girl Sarah Brown (played charmingly by Smith's amazingly talented vocalist of a wife, Stacia Smith, who's previously played Adelaide in productions of this show) in "I've Never Been In Love Before" or soloing in "Luck Be A Lady," Smith stands out, and it is wonderful.

Checchia's Nathan Detroit is paired - for their infamous fourteen-year-long engagement - with Lynnne DeMers-Hunt as Adelaide, the star of the Hot Box revue. She's fine in the entire show but stands out particularly in her second-act Hot Box floor show of "Take Back Your Mink", where her dancing is also showcased. The "Take Back Your Mink" scene, with her women's ensemble back-up dancers, is one of three completely inspired stagings in the production.

This show should be seen for any number of reasons. Three of them are "Take Back Your Mink," the Havana street scene, and the craps shooters' dance. The costuming as a whole is wonderful for this show (kudos to Janell Berte, costume designer, for one of the most delicious pieces of costuming this year, better than a few of the professional shows on area stages), and Irving Gonzalez' choreography is stellar, making these scenes completely delightful. The bits of stage business in the Havana scene are some of the best in recent memory in the area, comparable to Allenberry's inspired "NYC" stage business in its current ANNIE. Kudos to Fernandez and Gonzalez for this staging.

Another one, in huge measure, is Jim Rule, this production's Nicely Nicely Johnson. It's become a tradition to find the nearest thing to a Stubby Kaye clone to play the part, but why? Rule is a bit older, not so rotund - but he's all humor and voice, taking the title song and the classic "Sit Down You're Rocking The Boat" out of great music and lyrics alone and back into great delivery. This is one of those parts where strict adherence to casting to the original Broadway actor's exact physical type is highly unnecessary; very few physical Stubby Kaye clones have any of Kaye's enormous stage talents. Rule's performance in those numbers and in the opening "Fugue For Tinhorns" (the title's never remembered, but the lyric, "I've got a horse right here, his name is Paul Revere" is rarely forgotten), the Nicely Nicely trifecta, is itself worth the price of a ticket.

In smaller roles that bring major satisfaction, note Evan Cooper's Lieutnant Brannigan, thorn in the side of respectable craps shooters across Manhattan; Gene Ellis as Big Jule, the Chicago gambler in town for a game, with his personalized Chicago dice (no, they're not loaded); and John Kleimo as Arvide, Sarah's uncle and fellow missionary. While Kleimo is not the singer that some of his castmates are, he's such a fine actor in the parts he takes that Arvide's small turn feels like something of major importance. And that is what acting is all about. Ellis shapes the larger-than-life Big Jule into almost mythic proportions, taking on Nathan at the under-the-sewers craps game with his special, personalized dice, and Cooper has the no-nonsense, humorless plainclothes officer's character and voice down cold.

If musical theatre, like opera, is intended to showcase all the arts - acting, dance, music, and such visual arts matters as costuming and sets - this production has met every element. It's certainly the best community theatre choreography of the season, and Gonzalez' work in this show actually outshines a few professionals in the Central Pennsylvania in recent months. This production is absolutely delightful; go see it.

At EPAC's Sharadin-Bigler Theatre through August 10, to be followed by Tennessee Williams' THE GLASS MENAGERIE in September. Call 717-733-7966 or visit www.ephrataperformingartscenter.com for tickets.

Photo courtesy of Ephrata Performing Arts Center



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