'Guys and Dolls': Theater Review

Guys and Dolls - H 2015
Courtesy of Kevin Parry for the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
This Oregon Shakespeare Festival production gives an old gem new luster.

Tony-winner Mary Zimmerman stages a stark version of Frank Loesser's rich musical classic that never skimps on wit or charm.

A perennial favorite since it first opened on Broadway in 1950, Guys and Dolls was destined for the big screen when Samuel Goldwyn paid $1 million (a record at the time) to secure the rights, then financed it out-of-pocket for $5.5 million. He knew a sure thing when he saw it and was proven right when the multi-Tony-winning play became an Oscar-nominated movie in 1955. The film crystallized the overripe bustling aesthetic of the show, which became the norm in most subsequent stagings. But the new Oregon Shakespeare Festival production, directed by Tony winner Mary Zimmerman (Metamorphoses), offers a stark approach that narrows the spotlight on the songs, the singers and Damon Runyon’s zingers.

Like any classic worthy of the name, Guys and Dolls is so durable it loses nothing in the transition from Joseph Mankiewicz’s saturated widescreen treatment to this stripped-down version, in which miniature Manhattan skylines suggest a city, while a movable storefront and a tin-ceiling backdrop provide sparse yet ample scenery. Not much more is needed if you sing Frank Loesser’s timeless songs on key and succumb to the rhythm of writers Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows’ rib-tickling patois. The new production makes it look easy in this unconventional but eminently embraceable take on an indelible gem from musical theater’s golden age.

As Doug Peck’s jazz ensemble launches into the overture, the company takes the stage in a pattern of crisscrossing grids suggesting the hyperactive sidewalks of midtown Manhattan. They mainly move in regular rhythm but for a few who march to their own beat. These are the citizens of Runyonland — petty thieves, gamblers and grifters with names like Benny Southstreet (David Kelly), Rusty Charlie (Joe Wegner) and Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Daniel T. Parker).

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Into their midst comes the Mission Band, led by the pious Miss Sarah Brown (Kate Hurster), who seeks to save sinners in the daytime when she should be looking at night. That’s the advice given her by Sky Masterson (Jeremy Peter Johnson), so named for the limit he places on his wagers. He happens to be there on account of one such wager he has made with a certain Nathan Detroit (Rodney Gardiner) — that he can woo and win the heart of the incorruptible mission dame.

As the ever-scheming Nathan, Gardiner stands out in a cast of standouts, with a cartoonish performance that seems to splice together Edward G. Robinson and Lou Costello. Alive with a paradoxically hapless energy, it’s all he can do not to upstage his co-stars. But when it comes to Johnson’s Sky Masterson, Gardiner’s dominance cannot be helped. Based on Runyon’s fellow journalist, Bat Masterson, a colorful figure from the Old West, Sky is someone who stands above the crowd. Instead, Johnson, a seven-year veteran of OSF, offers a portrait of an average guy, albeit not as average as the rest. An accomplished performer, Johnson has the presence but lacks the magnetism that would truly elevate the character skyward.

His duet with Hurster, “I’ll Know,” demonstrates a rich tenor opposite the latter’s effulgent soprano. The two enjoy an amiable if not torrid chemistry that comes to a boil in Cuba, where she cuts loose in a drunken barroom brawl. Moments later, she seems to relish the chance to let her hair down in her spirited solo, “If I Were a Bell,” with its clever list of metaphors transforming Hurster before our eyes.

The yang to Sarah’s yin is Adelaide (Robin Goodwin Nordli), who gets the most memorable songs in a program brimming with standards. In “Adelaide’s Lament,” Nordli hilariously chronicles ailments brought on by fiance Nathan’s neglect, demonstrating a trained voice that strikes a pleasing mix between her character’s adenoidal pitch and her own operatic tone and suggesting a rough beauty at the heart of the bawdy showgirl.

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Daniel Pelzig’s outstanding choreography is a seamless melange of ballet, jazz and modern that dovetails with Zimmerman’s burnished but invisible direction. And in keeping with the spare approach, Peck’s arrangements rely heavily on bass, piano and saxophone, eschewing the brass and strings so prominent in most productions. 

In what proves to be an irrelevant tweak, Zimmerman resets the action in the 1930s, as per Runyon’s original short story, The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown. But the upbeat melodies, low stakes and clever comedy are steeped in a post-war optimism that makes it immune to the Great Depression, having little effect on the show's tone.

In the notes, Zimmerman recalls how a friend jokingly asked director Jerry Zaks, who was in rehearsals on the 1992 Broadway revival at the time, how he planned to make it work. The joke being that it’s almost harder to fail than it is to succeed with material like Guys and Dolls. But that doesn’t mean Zimmerman and company don’t earn their success. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Guys and Dolls is an overdue fresh take on a classic, which, pared down or dolled up, bristles with wit and charm.

Venue: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Beverly Hills
Cast: Robin Goodwin Nordli, Kate Hurster, Rodney Gardiner, Alyssa Birrer, Tyler Matthew Burk, Tony DeBruno, Richard Elmore, Al Espinosa, Robert Vincent Frank, Kristin Glaeser, Richard Howard, Briawna Jackson, Jeremy Peter Johnson, Sean Jones, David Kelly, Eugene Ma, Erin O’Connor, Daniel T. Parker, Britney Simpson, Jeff Skowron, Jonathan Luke Stevens. K.T. Vogt, Joe Wegner, Christopher Henry Young
Director: Mary Zimmerman
Book: Abe Burrows, Joe Swerling, based on story and characters by Damon Runyon
Music & lyrics: Frank Loesser
Set designer: Daniel Ostling
Costume designer: Mara Blumenfeld

Lighting designer: T.J. Gerckens
Sound designer: Ray Nardelli
Music direction & orchestrations: Doug Peck
Choreographer: Daniel Pelzig
Presented by Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Music Theatre International, Oregon Shakespeare Festival