BWW Review: GUYS AND DOLLS at the Guthrie
With a youthful, multi-racial cast of 30, the Guthrie's current production of GUYS AND DOLLS bolsters its reputation as a theater that can mount classics with flair, fidelity, and design excellence. The lyrics crackle, as ever, the singing soars, the casting features multiple body types and skin tones, and the design pops.
One of the greatests examples of the American book musical, GUYS AND DOLLS is a mash up of characters and storylines that first appeared in the short stories of Damon Runyon, a New York based sports writer and newspaper columnist beginning in the 1930s. He had a comic, affectionate take on the lively underclass of Times Square in his time: gamblers, grifters, burlesque dancers, and so forth. After his death in 1946, a pair of young Broadway producers proposed a Runyonesque musical to the equally young and then unknown Frank Loesser, who promptly wrote music and lyrics for four songs--even before the story lines were firmly in place. Creating those fell to another Broadway newbie (Abe Burrows) and Jo Swerling, a playwright and Russian immigrant. Eventually seasoned Broadway director George Kaufman was brought on board, and he did a lot to shape the promising material into final form. The original production tried out in Philadelphia, where it underwent further changes, before opening on Broadway in the fall of 1950. It won 5 Tonys that season and has been a perpetual crowdpleaser since.
Billed as a "Musical Fable of Broadway," this production embraces a cartoonish, neon color palette and is shameless about staging gimmicks (like a telephone cord comic bit) and caricature (like a gambler nicknamed Harry the Horse who actually paws and snorts). It's all fun, all the time. This is true from the opening number, "Runyonland", an orchestral evocation of Times Square with a full cast prologue of wordless storylines, including Texan tourists, a nod to Marilyn Monroe, 3 card monte dealers, blind beggars who aren't what they seem, and so forth: the equivalent of a montage in film. The 10 person orchestra that's been assembled from the big pool of local talent is terrific, and occasionally lit so we can watch them from their perch above the set.
Central to the plot are two romances: one that's been going on for way long and one that's birthed as we watch. Gambler Nathan Detroit and dancer Adelaide have been engaged for fourteen years but never officially tied the knot, though the script makes it clear they've done everything else married folks do, which would have been quite a racy bit of writing in the 1950s.
Rodney Gardner makes a likeable Nathan, which is essential. He's a good match for Kirsten Wyatt's adenoidal and long-suffering Adelaide, who has mastered the speedy and clever lyrics she gets to deliver as well as the burlesque bump.
They are balanced by the high rolling gambler Sky Masterson (Jeremiah James) and his match, the Salvation Army sergeant Sarah Brown (Olivia Hernandez), whose arcs give substance to the convention that opposites attract. Hernandez has the most spectacular voice amongst the leads but all sing with authority and feeling.
Director Kent Gash and choreographer Dell Howlett move the action along briskly. They are clearly cognizant of the problematic gender stereotypes in this piece--a common facet of virtually the whole musical theater genre. Without changing words, they've done what they can to tweak some moments and shift emphasis in others to favor more present day notions of gender norms and fluidity. For instance, when Nathan is waiting for Adelaide to appear post-show at the Hot Box Club, where she headlines, he does a little sashay using his purple and pink suit coat as a bustle, suggesting he's more than a little interested in dancing like a girl. Another example: Howlett adds a female dancer to the male duet that first sings the title song, and she's not a prop the men ogle and throw around, she's a full-figured, full participant in the athletic celebration of what people do for love.
More examples: in Sarah's famous Havana song, "If I Were a Bell," the take is clearly that her encounter with rum has liberated her rather than incapacitating her: she's fully in charge of what she does and says. And in Sky's first verse of "I've Never Been in Love Before" he sings several phrases entirely without accompaniment or bravado, emphasizing his vulnerability in the moment.
There are more helpful departures in the casting: Big Jule, the pistol-packing gangster from Chicago, is played by Karen Wiese-Thomson without gender specificity. A regular and core ensemble member at the activist theater company Ten Thousand Things, this marks her Guthrie debut. Mark Andrew Garner plays both a gangster and a Hot Box dancer, staying hugely busy.
Choreographer Howlett uses dance as a means of storytelling here, not just a decorative interlude to plot. The choreography is very crisp and quite gymnastic at times. It includes some thigh and boot slapping moves, a touch of hip hop here and there along with the burlesque-lite bits and the Latin work that provides an elegant transition to the scenes in Cuba.
Costume designer Kara Harmon drew up plans for 124 head-to-toe costumes for this show, and the Guthrie shop built about one third of those from scratch. (The shoe costs alone would break the budget at most regional houses, I wager.) The costumes are terrific, exaggerated, cartoonish, and bright. They are also ingenious and wacky when that's called for, as in the first of the two Hot Box Club dance numbers, "A Bushel and a Peck," where the dancers appear as a whole cornucopia of fruits and veggies: eggplant, pineapple, carrot, watermelon, and grapes before stripping down to their bustiers and 50's underpants. It's a hoot.
The costumes bring a swirl of color to the open space of the thrust stage, backed by a variety of looks by scenic designer Jason Sherwood. He's not afraid of big shows requiring multiple looks; he's designed the Grammys and aspires to creating the opening ceremony for an Olympics. I hope he gets that chance.
For most of Act One, a pushed perspective rendition of Times Square in neon lights looms over the stage. In a terrific transition, this goes dark to permit a 4' airplane on a pole, lit from the inside, to be walked across the stage while a large round painted backdrop of stylized pastel Chevys flies in from above to move us to Cuba. The ensemble of dancers, now all in white and in languid Latin movement, complete the shift from New York. This kind of seamless integration of the design arts, along with precise balance between orchestra and singers, is what the Guthrie manages to nail with nearly every mainstage show they mount.
The ensemble is too large to name specifically, but Justin Keyes as Nicely Nicely Johnson merits a special shout out. He starts the show as one of the voices in the "Fugue for Tinhorns,"and he anchors one of the greatest numbers ever devised for the Broadway stage, "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat." Appealingly unassuming in appearance, projecting uncertainty at first, he warms into a song creating builds that had the Guthrie audience on their feet. In "...Boat", he's helped by the whole cast and a terrific cameo performance by Regina Marie Williams as General Matilda B. Cartwright.
Broadway purists will like this show, I wager, but so too will those of us who can tire of conventional 'museum' productions. It's great to see so many artists of color working on stage and in the creative team. You can catch this show all summer long, until August 25. I recommend it!
Photo credit: T Charles Erickson