BWW Review: Rollins' GUYS & DOLLS is Enjoyable, but Lacks Runyan Charm
At its best, GUYS AND DOLLS will transport you to another time and place. A place where career criminals wear colorful, oddly-patterned suits; speak with humorous, but non-descript accents; and live lives in which their marker is their more sacred than gold. This place is called Runyonland. Unfortunately, as entertaining as Rollins College's production of this classic "Musical Fable" is, it rarely ever rises to the Runyonland level. Running through Sunday, April 26th at the Annie Russell Theatre, Rollins' GUYS AND DOLLS is enjoyable, and again affirms why the program is one of the most consistent theatre companies in Central Florida, but lacks the joy and whimsy that makes GUYS AND DOLLS one of the greatest examples of the American musical theatre.
Based on the short stories by Damon Runyon, specifically "The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown" and "Blood Pressure," the musical tells the tale of a collection of New York gamblers in search of both a spot to hold a floating crap game and love. With music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, and a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, the original Broadway production opened in 1950 and swept five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Since, it has been revived on Broadway three times, including a starry 1992 production featuring Peter Gallagher, Nathan Lane, Faith Prince, and future Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons.
At this point, it's almost reductive to rehash the plot of GUYS AND DOLLS, but just in case you need a refresher, in addition to the pressure being applied by hot-headed police officer Lt. Brannigan (a fiesty Christopher Stewart), crap game organizer Nathan Detroit (played by Nicholas D'Alessandro) is also feeling the heat from his fiancé of 14 years, Miss Adelaide, played by the wonderful Isabella Ward. Unable to find a location for his game without a $1,000 down payment, Nathan bets legendary high-stakes gambler Sky Masterson (Ryan McCormick) that he can't take Sergeant Sarah Brown (Kristen Soto) from the local Save-a-Soul Mission to dinner in Cuba the next day. From there, the hilarity and hijinks unfold as they should in any Golden Era musical comedy.
As is true in nearly every production of GUYS AND DOLLS, this one is completely stolen by Ward. Her Adelaide is the comedic highlight of the show; whenever she saunters onto stage, you know that it is time to sit up and pay attention. Unfortunately, Ward seemed to be the only cast member to fully embrace a quirky Runyonland characterization. "Adelaide's Lament," though not vocally perfect, was the highlight of the night. Ward's subtle comic timing and careful realizations were spot-on.
In fact, I wish that the production team had given her, and her Hot Box Dancers, more to do in the burlesque scenes. They were under choreographed, and while Ward and the dancers were fully committed, they felt like throw away numbers, rather than the opportunities to dazzle the audience that they should be. Ward had a bit of trouble transitioning from her character voice to a more natural belt, but once she got there, it was pretty wonderful.
As her chronically cold-footed fiancé, D'Alessandro was cool, and often funny, but never seemed to have the stylization that would have raised his performance to Ward's level; except for when they went head-to-head on "Sue Me," and he could deliver his clear-voiced best.
As the romantic heart of the show, McCormick and Soto don't carry the same chemistry of their comedic counterparts, no matter what Sky would have you believe. They are individually talented and more than competent in their roles, but they don't possess the charm that makes this love story transcendent.
Both sing well, but McCormick had a habit of chopping off the ends of his extended notes, and Soto's beautiful legit voice seemed to occasionally act as a barrier to her fully connecting to the lyrics.
A handful of the other featured actors had moments to shine as well. Even though his "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat" was probably a step or two too high for Nicholas Damiano, he was a delightfully silly Nicely Nicely Johnson. Bailey DeVoe played a gender swapped "Aunt Edna" Abernathy. While she was very funny in the role, I missed Arvide's "More I Cannot Wish You," which was not included. While I understand the need in educational theatre to occasionally rearrange gender roles, I found it disappointing from Rollins. Between the all-female Mission Band, and having actresses playing male gamblers, I felt that a program as accomplished, and often incredible, as Rollins, would be able to choose shows that better play to their talent and demographic strengths.
The "Mission Dolls" were all very funny, from MiKayla Phillips' goofy Agatha to Andee Atkins silent, but constantly perplexed Martha to Sarah Clark's stern, but sexually ferocious General Cartwright.
Unfortunately, the gamblers didn't seem to have that level of characterization or distinction. Whether it was the lack of the traditional distinctive accents, or the lack of larger-than-life personalities, most of the gamblers just blended together.
As with "More I Cannot Wish You," I was disappointed that my favorite GUYS AND DOLLS' song, "My Time of Day" was cut, and that the opening pantomime, "Runyanland," seemed far shorter than normal.
Missy Barnes' direction was very efficient, but lacked the certainty and specificity that makes this style of character comedy work. As I mentioned before, I was underwhelmed by Robin Wilson's choreography. Whether it was with the Hot Box numbers, or on the abbreviated "Crapshooters' Ballet," the dancing was more of a placeholder, than movement that could advance or elevate story or character.
The eight-person orchestra, under the direction of Jamey Ray, was spectacular. The music was professional and crystal clear; often sounding like it was coming from a group twice as large. The scenic design presented a nostalgic, vision of New York City that looked like a beloved faded photograph.
While expectations are always high going into a treasured classic musical, Rollins College's production maintains much of what makes GUYS AND DOLLS one of the best pieces of theatre Broadway has ever produced. So, roll the dice and get your tickets on the Annie Russell Theatre website, or by calling 407-646-2145.
Did you venture to Runyon's New York? If so, let me know what you thought of Rollins' GUYS AND DOLLS in the comments below, or by "Liking" and following BWW Orlando on Facebook and Twitter using the buttons below. You can also chat with me about the show on Twitter @BWWMatt.
1) Lena Barker, Giana Blazquez, Isabella Ward, Selia Aponte, and Angelica Trombo: Anne Russell Theatre
2) Ryan McCormick and Kristen Soto: Annie Russell Theatre
3) Isabella Ward and Nicholas D'Alessandro: Annie Russell Theatre
4) James Blaisdell and Nicholas Damiano: Annie Russell Theatre