Michael L. Quintos
Even at 60 years old, GUYS AND DOLLS—the oh-so-delightful classic musical comedy featuring memorable music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and a cleverly cheeky book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows—still remains as one of American theater's greatest and most timeless treasures. It's no wonder that the Tony Award-winning Best Musical of 1950 has since been revived and remounted all across the world a gazillion times over and continues to be a favorite go-to for many regional and academic theaters. It even boasts a popular 1955 cinematic adaptation featuring Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando.
It's certainly not hard to love this show. Based on Damon Runyon's colorful short stories of various gangsters, gamblers, and an assortment of other underworld ne'er-do-wells in 1920s/1930s New York City, this "musical fable of Broadway" is an entertaining mash-up of madcap storytelling, perfectly-concocted showtunes, and (when done right) dazzling visuals that transport you to an amusingly exaggerated world where, ideally, hard-charging guys become lulled softies around their lovely dolls.
So it's not really that much of a surprise that even this brand new, non-equity national tour—currently onstage at Orange County's Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa for a limited week-long run through April 19—is a winning, nicely-nicely done charmer. Of course, it helps a lot that this traveling production comes equipped with Broadway-caliber sets and costumes and, most satisfying of all, a really talented, engaging ensemble cast.
That very cast helps the audience immerse itself in the classic, highly-amusing narrative that tracks the intertwined activities of cheap-skate gambler Nathan Detroit (the funny Christopher Swan) and confident high-stakes gambler Sky Masterson (the dashing Matthew J. Taylor). Desperate to secure Joey Biltmore's garage as the new secret location for his "oldest established permanent floating crap game," the money-deprived Nathan concocts what he thinks is a sure-fire bet with Sky for a $1,000—the exact amount Joey demands for use of his garage.
The bet? That Sky must succeed in romancing a "random" girl into agreeing to dinner with him in, uh, Havana, Cuba. Not one to turn away from a challenge, Sky agrees to seduce Nathan's pick: Sarah Brown (the lovely-voiced Kayleen Seidl), a bible-thumping leader in the local "Save-A-Soul" Mission, a group of well-intentioned do-gooders whose aim is to clean up the depravity of Broadway (ha!) by helping reform sinners into "following the fold."
For her part, Sarah is quite initially impressed by Sky, both with his biblical knowledge and his apparent desire to reform. Sensing that he's intrigued her enough, Sky offers Sarah an interesting bargain: if she agrees to go to Havana with him the following night, Sky will, in return, bring a dozen "sinners" to the mission for reformation. She turns him down at first (even slapping the guy when he surprises her with a kiss), but later reluctantly agrees to the deal the next day after learning from General Cartwright (Jesse Graham) that the mission branch may be forced to close down if they are unable to secure enough sinners to come to a revival meeting.
Meanwhile, across town at the Hot Box nightclub, headliner Adelaide (a perfectly-cast Lauren Weinberg) laments once again at the prospect of remaining single and unwed, despite a 14-years-and-counting engagement to Nathan. Not only is she upset that Nathan seems to be waffling at the idea, she's also livid that Nathan continues to run illegal crap games. Apparently, the stress has turned her into a hypochondriac, too.
As the wicked denizens of New York City salivate with anticipation for Nathan's promised crap game, police lieutenant Brannigan (Michael C. Thatcher) scours the streets, always on the lookout for suspicious activity, particularly from Nathan and his cronies Nicely Nicely Johnson (scene-stealing Todd Berkich), Benny Southstreet (Mike McLean), and Rusty Charlie (Dru Serkes). Nathan better get something together quick, because according to local thug Harry the Horse (Cliff Blake), notorious gangster/gambler Big Jule (John Galas) is in town looking for some action.
Down in Havana, Sarah inadvertently becomes drunk on multiple dulce de leches and becomes enamored with Sky. Sky is surprised that he's now genuinely falling for Sarah himself, so he agrees to fly her back to New York for her safety. Hours later, as the sun rises above the Save-A-Soul Mission building, the now sober Sarah is still smitten—and so is Sky. But is this romance too good to be true? Well, it doesn't help that an alarm suddenly rings out to break the romantic scene, with Nathan and a bunch of zoot-suited criminals running out of the Mission building in a panic. That's right... Nathan used the Mission as an impromptu location for his crap game. Oh, crap.
Temporarily setting aside the on-going debate of seeing an equity vs. non-equity show for a moment to focus on the merits of the production itself, this bus-and-truck GUYS AND DOLLS—produced by Big League Productions, Inc. and directed by Jeffrey B. Moss—is, in the grand scheme of things, an admirably engaging, very pleasing presentation... certainly a surprisingly plush, briskly-staged iteration that rivals even the most expensive, well-funded regional productions. Perhaps inspired partially by the exceptional Tony-winning 1992 Broadway revival, this new tour really made me smile.
Randel Wright's scenic designs are appropriately stylized Runyon-esque marvels that pop with the color palette of a Dick Tracy cartoon, while the costumes designed by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case evoke amplified versions of the frocks worn in Runyon's world. The limber cast executes Bob Richard's electric choreography quite well (particularly in the Havana scenes), adding to all the fun (One thing that puzzled me from a thematic design standpoint, though, is the title signage emblazoned with arrows in the scrim that was on display before the show started and during intermission).
As for the show's cast, it is certainly populated with some genuinely winning performances—which is a testament to the pleasant hopefulness that comes with seeing (and hearing) fresh talent, as well as a welcome surprise sigh of relief since, welllll... this is a non-equity tour after all.
Swan easily amuses as Nathan Detroit, who spars well with both his more "debonair" counter-part Sky Masterson, played by smolderific Taylor, and his sneezy paramour Adelaide, played by the show's most enchanting and most hilarious cast member, Weinberg. Her Betty Boop-tinged voice really fits her deliciously quirky character and her "Adelaide's Lament" is just a fabulous rendition. Even her walk and non-verbal facial expressions had me grinning.
Seidl's superb soprano is just lovely and she even displays a bit of sassy-ness. Galas and Graham offer up droll surprises as Big Jule and General Cartwright, respectively. Meanwhile, Berkich is a scene-stealing hoot as Nicely Nicely Johnson (flanked by silly sidekicks McLean and Serkes). His lead vocal on "Sit Down, You're Rockin' The Boat" is a rip-roaring highlight.
And speaking of "Sit Down..." it appears that of all the songs in GUYS AND DOLLS, this crowd-pleasing fave seems to incite the most tinkering in every iteration I've seen/heard of the show (some are great, some not so much). For this new tour, what seems to start out as the it-ain't-broke classic version—staged wonderfully in the 1992 Broadway revival—suddenly takes an odd turn to incorporate the more gospel-flavored version that was attempted in the recent 2009 Broadway revival. While that recent revival's gospel reboot certainly had its great qualities (mainly because the super awesome Tituss Burgess took it to church in the most rousing possible way), the tacked-on gospel-ized ending in this new tour feels a bit like a contrived afterthought at the end and that the extra augmentation is perhaps unnecessary here.
Still, when all is seen, heard, and done, this playful, well-intentioned, excitingly-staged version of the proven classic delivers the jackpot with an extra helping of charm. GUYS AND DOLLS is a pretty safe bet, so go for it.
Review originally published on BroadwayWorld. Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos from the National Tour of GUYS AND DOLLS by Gary Emord-Netzley, courtesy of SCFTA.
Performances of Big League Productions' GUYS AND DOLLS at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, April 19, 2015. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.
For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.