Theater Review: Guys and Dolls

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NEW YORK -- "Guys and Dolls" is a nearly perfect musical, which it has to be to survive the frequent mistreatment it receives in the new revival staged by Des McAnuff. Filled with lavish directorial touches that add little to the proceedings and featuring several surprisingly pallid performances, the show still manages to provide a good time thanks to the brilliance of Frank Loesser's score and the hilarity of Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows' book. But those with strong memories of the superb 1992 revival starring Nathan Lane, Faith Prince and Peter Gallagher will find much to quibble about here.

McAnuff is an undeniably visually talented director, as demonstrated in such shows as "Jersey Boys" and "The Who's Tommy." But here his overuse of modernistic background projections (of vintage New York scenes) is both anachronistic and distracting, reducing the show's wonderfully old-fashioned, vintage flavor. And why is the most physically elaborate of all the various sets the sewer that Nathan Detroit uses for his floating crap game?

The addition of a framing device in which we see Damon Runyon -- the author of the original stories on which the show is based -- banging away on a typewriter seems entirely unnecessary, as does the elaborate dance number that precedes the classic opening song "Fugue for Tinhorns." And there's no good reason to have changed the show's setting to the Depression era.

Oliver Platt would seem to be perfect casting for the boisterous Nathan, but though he usually brings an outsized charisma to his roles, he's strangely subdued and ineffective here. Craig Bierko's bland Sky Masterson lacks the terrific flair he brought to the title role in the Broadway revival of "The Music Man," while Kate Jennings Grant is perfectly fine but unmemorable in the least showy role of Sarah Brown.

Only Lauren Graham ("Gilmore Girls"), here making her Broadway debut, fully captures the magic of the material, infusing her portrayal with a touching and comic vulnerability that is endlessly entertaining. She's perhaps also the sexiest Miss Adelaide ever, revealing her shapely body in a series of scanty costumes.

The problem stretches even to the supporting players. Tituss Burgess seems miscast as Nicely-Nicely, his high tenor voice inappropriate for songs that demand serious belting (he does have a great, gospel-style moment during "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat," which succeeds in bringing down the house). And Mary Testa's broad mugging as General Cartwright eventually lapses into sheer vulgarity.

Venue: Nederlander Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Presented by Howard Panter for Ambassador Theatre Group, Tulchin/Bartner, Bill Kenwright, Northwater Entertainment, Darren Bagert and Tom Gregory, with Nederlander Presentations, Inc., David Mirvish, Michael Jenkins/Dallas Summer Musicals, Independent Presenters Network, Olympus Theatricals and Sonia Friedman Prods.
Music and lyrics: Frank Loesser
Book: Jo Swerling, Abe Burrows
Director: Des McAnuff
Choreography: Sergio Trujillo
Scenery designer: Robert Brill
Costume designer: Paul Tazewell
Lighting designer: Howell Binkley
Sound designer: Steve Canyon Kennedy
Video designer: Dustin O'Neill
Cast: Oliver Platt, Lauren Graham, Craig Bierko, Kate Jennings Grant, Tituss Burgess, Glenn Fleshler, Adam LeFevre, Jim Ortlieb, Steve Rosen, Mary Testa