Michael L. Quintos
- Associate Los Angeles Critic
When Musical Theatre West presents a new production of a classic musical, it's pretty much guaranteed that the show will be a faithful representation of what one imagines that particular classic show might have been envisioned in its original or (at the very least) its most popular form.
Not surprisingly, that's exactly what you'll get with their latest locally-mounted revival of "GUYS AND DOLLS"—that ubiquitous Tony Award-winning 1950 musical based on Damon Runyon's short stories. This new Long Beach, CA production continues at the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts stage through March 4, 2018. Buoyantly bright, unabashedly old-fashioned, and yet irresistibly enjoyable, MTW's latest show of its 65th season manages to preserve its infamous old-school charms without making it unapproachable for 21st Century audiences.
Helmed by director Mark Martino, MTW's new production of "GUYS AND DOLLS" looks and sounds like a wonderful throwback to this musical's roots, recreated reverently as if to reiterate all of its smile-inducing properties to be enjoyed by both traditionalists and newbies alike. From Frank Loesser's timeless music and lyrics (which includes now standards "Luck Be A Lady," and "I've Never Been in Love") to the cheeky-for-its-time book by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling, this "GUYS AND DOLLS" places much of its bets on the show's built-in, inherent nostalgia, performed well by its energetic, highly enthusiastic cast.
Visually, despite the flatness of its sets (the "logo" curtain looks like it was swiped directly from the recent non-equity tour), the show is still bursting with vivid life and dazzling color, aided by Tamara Becker's technicolor costumes and the purposeful lighting created by Paul Black. The show's terrific pit orchestra, under the baton of music director Benet Braun sounds like an awesome, larger-than-normal orchestra that's, sadly, lacking in most of today's modern musicals. Even Daniel Smith's electric choreography looks as if they were resuscitated from archival footage but injected with new verve by its caffeinated ensemble.
And, yes, what an ensemble it is—all of whom do great work telling the story of how a small (but highly interconnected) faction of gambling-obsessed "sinners" in New York City somehow gets "folded" into the scripture-adhering lives of a local religious group, whose primary aim, funny enough, is to "save" such sinners from further evil-doing (funny side note: the ladies' outfits recall the garb worn by the women in Hulu's Emmy winning series The Handmaid's Tale).
As the show's pair of main ne'er-do-wells, Matthew Henerson (who plays dice-game purveyor Nathan Detroit) and Jeremiah James (as suave and clever gambler Sky Masterson) are excellent lead actors, likable the instant each enters the stage and are well contrasting as personality foils. Henerson, of course, gets most of the laughs between the two, with James providing confident swagger and admirable vocals to his role.
Additionally, Henerson has great comic rapport with his character's main squeeze, the long-unbetrothed Hot Box Dancer Miss Adelaide, played with scene-stealing hutzpah by the absolutely winning Bree Murphy. Her endearing mix of vulnerability and oh-hell-nah sass (complete with awesome belty growl-tinged vocals) makes you want to cheer for her every time. Her take on "Adelaide's Lament?" Incredible! Not surprisingly, she received the loudest cheers during the performance I saw.
Sky's lovely counterpart, meanwhile, is Save-A-Soul missionary Sarah Brown, played by the gorgeous-voiced Madison Claire Parks. Her beautifully clear, high legit soprano will absolutely melt you in your seat. I also love her acting work in the role, allowing for a slightly more self-assured Sarah than previous depictions I've seen.
Other standouts in the ensemble include two of Nathan's frequently hilarious sidekicks, Blake Joseph and Andrew Metzger—who play Benny Southstreet and Nicely-Nicely Johnson, respectively. Metzger, in particular, gets a standout soloist showcase in "Sit Down You're Rockin' The Boat," which still, for me, stands as one of the most rousing musical numbers in the history of musical theater. It has also been said that you can sort of judge the goodness of a production of "GUYS AND DOLLS" by how well this number is done in the show. If that is indeed an acceptable barometer, then this MTW production certainly deserves your attention (extra shout-out to Janna Cardia who effortlessly hits that stratospheric high note in the number as the excitable General Matilda Cartwright). I also adored Fred Bishop who plays Arvide Abernathy, Sarah's grandfather and fellow missionary. His heartwarming "More I Cannot Wish You" almost drew a tear or two from me.
The hardworking ensemble, intermittently playing either various citizens of New York City or gambler/gangsters or Hot Box dancers/patrons are all talented singer/dancers in their own right. Their prowess is most especially evident during the spectacular ensemble numbers, including the dance suite featured in Havana, Cuba.
Because the musical numbers were so impressively done, it did allow me to take notice of the show's book elements more than in other productions I have seen. Something that stood out more so than before for me: "GUYS AND DOLLS" has A LOT of dialogue, seemingly much more than your average book musical. While it wasn't necessarily a negative, these lengthy bits of non-musical ("play") parts seem to be more elongated than necessary for it to tell its story for a modern theatergoer, especially compared to this century's new musicals. But on the flip side of the argument, I do appreciate this old-school conceit of not having the dialogue exist merely as a means to go from one musical moment to the other. In a way, the musical numbers become more like special treats—a welcome respite from the comedy/drama unfolding.
While, sure, part of me wanted to see something "new" jump out that would differentiate this production from similar well-done iterations I've experienced in the past, I still walked away smiling and sufficiently satisfied with this strikingly admirable local production—filled with Broadway-caliber performances and staging that can stand side-by-side with other previous excellent presentations of this enduring classic. Overall, MTW made a winning gamble on "GUYS AND DOLLS.”
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ.
Photos © Caught In The Moment Photography/Musical Theatre West.
Final remaining performances of Musical Theatre West's production of "GUYS AND DOLLS" continue through Sunday, March 4, 2018. The Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts is located at 6200 E. Atherton Street in Long Beach, CA. For tickets or for more information, please call 562-856-1999 x4 or visit online at www.musical.org.