Review: GUYS AND DOLLS at Theatre Memphis

The House Wins!

By: Sep. 01, 2022
Review: GUYS AND DOLLS at Theatre Memphis

It's hard to believe that it's been over 70 years since GUYS AND DOLLS emerged into the American consciousness with a book by Abe Burrows/Jo Swerling and music by Frank Loesser. Of course, it was followed by a well-known film starring Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Jean Simmons, and Vivian Blaine that is still recognized as a true American Musical classic. Based on two short stories written in the 1930's by Damon Runyon about gangsters and gamblers from the New York City underworld, GUYS AND DOLLS follows two couple's relationships (one blossoming and the other struggling) as they fall in and out (and in and out) of love with humor, silliness, and romance. With such recognizable songs as "A Bushel and a Peck," "Guys and Dolls," and "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat," it's become a community theatre staple for decades. Odds are good, when you double down with Theatre Memphis and director Cecelia Wingate (SHREK, THE PRODUCERS, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN), audiences are going to win big. Not to jinx anyone, but this winning TM/Wingate combination over the past several years is going to have to come up "snake eyes" eventually, right? Somehow though, Wingate continues to "let it ride" by having an eye for talent and has again combined Memphis' best performers, technical staff, and orchestra to present one prize of a show!

I can't stress enough the importance of having a strong, live, talented orchestra. The very first note heard in a performance (often the overture) literally and figuratively sets the tone for what's to come. Under Jeffery Brewer's expert musical direction, Memphis audiences continue to be spoiled beyond measure. He assembles the best musicians in town. The rich, invigorating overture is somehow even still bested by the entr'acte. This orchestra is exquisite.

Matching the infused excitement of the music, is Jack Netzel-Yates's sharp, foreboding, light-accented skyline of New York. Whether it's highlighting a busy city thoroughfare or inside the "glitzy-light" Hot Box nightclub, the scenery flies, glides, or spins seamlessly with the action.

Amie Eoff's costume design is bright, loud, and daring. Every outfit is colorful, interesting and helps support the story. The men's suits are "uniformly" bold and stylish. Her design puts the audience squarely into the world of Damon Runyon.

Nicole Northington must have had fun bouncing her lighting design off Eoff's selection of fabrics as the color palettes complimented each other in the most dramatic of ways and helped support the mood of the moment. Top notch.

Finally, TM is lucky to have Jason Eschhofen back in control of the sound design. The sound of each performer was rich, strong, and clear. The balance between the musicians and the singers perfectly allowed the melodic harmonies to wash over the spectators.

Review: GUYS AND DOLLS at Theatre Memphis

As has been the case for many years now, this ensemble is strong. Most community theatres in America struggle to find men to fill out their ensembles, let alone men who can dance. Christi Hall's choreography lets the men shine (with a few women successfully disguised as men) in ACT II's "The Crapshooters Dance." The ladies also get their chances in the spotlight, especially the Hot Box Girls as they slink and slither in the most comical of ways.

Review: GUYS AND DOLLS at Theatre Memphis
Phillip Andrew Himebook as Nicely Nicely and Kent Fleshman as Benny

This cast is full of top-notch singers, but none better than supporting actors Kent Fleshman as Benny Southstreet and Phillip Andrew Himebook as Nicely Nicely-Nathan Detroit's gambling sidekicks. They perfectly set the mood for the entire show with their opening song, "Fugue for Tinhorns," then nail the iconic signature song in the middle, "Guys and Dolls" and ultimately Himebook stops the show with his 11th hour number "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat." I don't know what note Himebook hits at the end of this song, but it almost blows the roof off the building. Outstanding!

In true Wingate fashion, she can have fun by turning a concept on its head with her casting of Franklin Koch as Big Jule-the most intimidating and dangerous gambler in New York City. It's a fun and giggle-worthy optic till the end.

Kortland Whalum stars as Sky Masterson, a gambler who bets so big he garnered the nickname Sky. Masterson gets pulled into an almost impossible bet that finds him having to seduce a woman (Sarah Brown) to fly to Havana just to have lunch with him. Whalum is an interesting choice for this role in that he doesn't meet anyone halfway. Instead he slowly seduces Sarah (and the audience) to come to him. His mannerisms are minimal, his voice is alluring, and his charisma is infectious. Sarah's breathtaking reactions to his style and technique are palpable. This is one smooth criminal.

Review: GUYS AND DOLLS at Theatre Memphis
Emily Chateau as Sarah and Kortland Whalum as Sky

Emily Chateau continues to prove herself to be one of the best actors in Memphis with her portrayal of Sarah Brown, a missionary worker flailing miserably to save souls. This is a difficult role to pull off in that in this Runyon world of color and flair, Sarah is "gray." In the wrong hands, this character could easily get lost and be overshadowed by the more eccentric people around her, but Chateau never lets that happen. She offers enough nuance, determination, and realism that you can't help but identify and root for her.

Review: GUYS AND DOLLS at Theatre Memphis
Nichol Pritchard as Adelaide and Patrick Jones as Nathan Detroit

As the forever wheeling and dealing Nathan Detroit, Memphis-newcomer Patrick Jones does a nice job. He is appropriately exasperated, agitated, and desperate at all the right times in his attempts to keep his friends and girlfriend (Miss Adelaide) happy. He has a nice singing voice and is full of energy, but missed some opportunities to change up his delivery to find more laughs and/or pathos.

Review: GUYS AND DOLLS at Theatre Memphis
Nichol Pritchard as Miss Adelaide

Stealing the show, scene after scene is Nichol Pritchard as Miss Adelaide, the Hot Box dancer who simply wants to marry her long-time sweetheart, Nathan Detroit. Pritchard makes the character her own with a unique delivery style which can elicit laughs from the audience whenever she pleases. She can do it all-sing, dance, and act with aplomb. She's a delight to watch and you won't be able to take your eyes off her.

Finally, S.A. Weakly as Arvide Abernathy, the long-time missionary who should probably retire, will bring you to sweet tears with his rendition of "More I Cannot Wish You"-a song about unconditional love that is universal. Weakly, a longtime Memphis actor, once again nails it.

Theatre Memphis, in conjunction with director Cecilia Wingate presenting GUYS AND DOLLS is a safe bet to succeed and it does. The challenge for a community theatre choosing a classic like this is that often the team will rest on the title/laurels of the show to pull audiences in without trying to find new ways to make the material fresh and interesting. This production doesn't ease up, but instead finds ways to elevate the delivery (performance and technical) to garner excitement from the crowd. For fans of this show, you won't be disappointed. For people who may not be familiar, get ready, you are about to hit the jackpot!

Photography by Carla McDonald

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