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Review: GUYS AND DOLLS at Eisenhower Theatre At The Kennedy Center

Review: GUYS AND DOLLS at Eisenhower Theatre At The Kennedy Center

Now through October 16th.

There's a time machine at the Kennedy Center.

On Sunday night, director Marc Bruni and the cast of Guys and Dolls transported the audience in the sold-out Eisenhower Theatre back to the Golden Age of Musicals, with an absolutely stellar performance of the beloved musical by Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows.

For some time now, I've been longing for someone to present a classic American musical without succumbing to the urge to "re-imagine" it.

Apparently, I'm not alone. In his director's notes, Bruni states, "... my intention for this trip to Runyonland is less an exercise in nostalgia and more one of rediscovery. Not reinvention per se-I have too much respect for the achievement of this piece to be presumptuous with a "concept" production. But rediscovery in letting us find the piece anew."

And the rest of the audience agreed - there was a roar of thunderous applause and cheers when the curtain went up, revealing Music Director Kevin Stites and a 22-piece orchestra (more on that later), and the ovations continued with increasing energy through the evening.

This production is a magical, nearly flawless trip to Runyonland, that mythical version of 1950's New York filled with gamblers and showgirls, and tireless Salvation Army workers determined to save them from their lives of sin and destitution.

The show is part of the Kennedy Center's Broadway Center Stage program, which began in 2017 with what Producer Jeffrey Finn calls "semi-staged concerts of iconic Broadway shows." Guys and Dolls takes the concept to the next level. As Finn describes it in his producer's notes, " Each Broadway Center Stage production rehearses in New York City for two weeks. During this time, the show is put together, complete with choreography, music, props, stage direction and more. Then, the cast and creatives arrive in Washington DC and spend three days to complete the technical process of adding lights, set, costumes and sound (including live musicians from the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra) onstage in the Eisenhower Theater." The production values are simply stunning - if it weren't for Finn's notes, one would think they'd been rehearsing for three months, not three weeks.

Review: GUYS AND DOLLS at Eisenhower Theatre At The Kennedy Center
The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

And since Finn touched on the orchestra, it really deserves a special mention. They are placed prominently on the stage, and occupy two thirds of the performance space. Scenic and Projection designer Paul Tate DePoo III has placed them in two square, art deco-style boxes, with each box canted at rakish, contrasting angles that are suggestive of two tumbling dice, and allow the audience to see the full orchestra at work. And what great work they do - the production features the Michael Starobin orchestrations from the 1992 Jerry Zaks Broadway revival of the show, and from the opening notes of the overture the audience is treated to the kind of rich, lush, multi-layered orchestral sound that is generally absent in the "two keyboards, drums, and four other instruments" configuration that is standard for most contemporary musicals. Sound Designers Kai Harada and Haley Parcher have mic'd both the orchestra and the actors, so the sound is clean and clear, with perfect balance - it's like watching the show, while listening to a cast recording.

Review: GUYS AND DOLLS at Eisenhower Theatre At The Kennedy Center
James Monroe Iglehart and Company sing
The Oldest Established
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

With the orchestra filling so much of the stage, most of the action is set downstage, and sets and scenery are spare and minimal. And for this production, it works - the orchestra adds a touch of elegance and gives the whole production a nightclub feel that works particularly well for the scenes set in the Hot Box Club. With the "stage concert" origins of the Broadway Center Stage series, this feels like a well-conceived hybrid of a the original BCS concept and a polished, full-blown musical. It's a new and fresh way to experience a classic musical, and for Guys and Dolls it works perfectly.

Review: GUYS AND DOLLS at Eisenhower Theatre At The Kennedy Center
Jessie Mueller and Phillipa Soo
in Guys and Dolls
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

And having all of the action playing downstage lets the audience get up close and personal with the cast of this production. Phillipa Soo (Sarah Brown), James Monroe Iglehart (Nathan Detroit), Jessie Mueller (Miss Adelaide), and Steven Pasquale (Sky Masterson) headline a cast that is remarkably talented, from top to bottom. All four are blessed with phenomenal singing voices and great comic timing, and the chemistry on stage between them (and the rest of the company) is fun to watch - it's clear this group of veteran performers enjoy working with each other. Notable supporting performances are delivered by Kevin Chamberlin (Nicely-Nicely Johnson), Matthew Saldivar (Benny Southstreet), and Akron Watson (Rusty Charlie), Jimmy Smagula (Harry the Horse), and Fred Applegate (Arvide Abernathy). Each delivers their characters' signature song(s) with panaché, including a long ovation (with a few audience members standing) after Chamberlin led a rousing Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat at the end of the second act. It was the high point of an evening full of musical delights, as this cast brought all of the beloved songs in the show to life.

There was one confusing casting choice - Rachel Dratch (SNL alum and Tony nominee) playing Big Julie. Originally portrayed as a big, dumb thug, a number of productions have attempted to milk the "Big Julie" name for laughs (and take some of the edge off the character) by casting a little person in the role. For this production, they've taken it a step further, playing on both the size reference and the character name, but there's no setup or context for the joke. (The entire exchange between Lt. Brannigan and Big Julie has been cut from this production; perhaps if it had been left in, it could have been tweaked a bit to help with context and intent.) The problem is not in Dratch's performance - which has some fine moments - it's that the casting decision is incongruous with the director's stated intent. When your program notes go out of their way to say you're going to present the show as God, Loesser, Swerling and Burrows intended, it feels like a theatrical bait and switch when this sort of "progressive re-imagining" is introduced halfway into the show. Worse yet, it forces the audience (in the midst of enjoying this amazing production) to attempt to analyze and understand the incongruity - is there a message here? Are they making a statement? Whatever the intent, it doesn't fit with the rest of the "classic" vibe of the production. It's an unnecessary distraction.

Review: GUYS AND DOLLS at Eisenhower Theatre At The Kennedy Center
The Crapshooters Dance
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Choreographer Denis Jones has created a stellar version of The Crapshooters Dance for this show, putting the talents of the gamblers ensemble on display in a fluid, graceful and powerful number that is simply stunning. By contrast, the short rehearsal window seems to have given the Hot Box numbers short shrift - they're entertaining, but not remarkable. (In a way, it makes them more realistic - they feel like the dancers are in a real nightclub, working under pressure to create something on a deadline.)

Mara Blumenfeld's costumes create the bright, colorful mood that is the hallmark of a good production of Guys and Dolls, and Tom Watson's wigs are period perfect, and create a variety of looks for ensemble members that cover multiple roles. It's a visually gorgeous production - costumes, sets, and video backdrops combine to enchant the eye, wherever you look.

There's only one glaring problem with this show: it runs for an all-too-brief ten days. One can only hope that the Kennedy Center will save the sets, and find a way to remount this production soon. It could easily run for two months, and with school day matinees it would be a wonderful way to introduce a new generation to the magic of Broadway.

Guys and Dolls runs through October 16th. Running time is 2:30, with one intermission.

For more information about The Kennedy Center, click here.

From This Author - Ken Kemp


Ken Kemp is an actor, director, and producer who has been active in Washington and Baltimore theatre for over 20 years. His work includes Equity and non-Equity, as well independent fil... (read more about this author)

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