A review by Tulis McCall
At this performance, when I said I was underwhelmed, my friend said, “Yes, but we all need this now.” This, being Guys and Dolls, which opened last night at the tiny little Nederlander on West 41st Street. The theatre itself may be one of the reasons I had a little difficulty with this production, but lets’ get back to the beginning.
The story of Guys and Dolls is based on Damon Runyon’s short story, The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown, in which a gambler falls in love with a Salvation Army worker. Like a lot of other stories, the main characters may fall in love with one another, but it is the supporting characters that grab the audience.
The choicest of these is Miss Adelaide, played by Laura Graham of Gilmore Girls fame, Nathan Detroit’s fiancée of 14 years (remember we are talking the 1940’s here) who earns her keep as a stripper. She is traveling light in the brains department (Nathan, how could you think I was Lieutenant Brannigan? We don't even use the same perfume.), but she makes up for it with her devotion to Nathan and her aversion to crap games of any kind.
Nathan, being the brains behind the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York, and having the misfortune of being in love with his fiancé is in a pickle. Not only is he in the brine, he is broke. He cannot stake the upcoming game in any location, and Adelaide’s marriage-o-meter is on hyper drive. Truly a veritable misfortune of the first order.
But wait! here is a rumor that Sky Masterson is in town. Sky (so named for the size of his bets which have been known to go sky-high) is a flamboyant gambler who will bet on everything from raindrops to his own temperature. If Nathan can get Sky to take a sure bet, Naathan can get the money he needs to rent the Biltmore garage for The Game. And the sure bet walks right past them in the form of Sarah Brown (Kate Jennings Grant) a Sergeant in the Salvation Army. Nathan bets Sky $1,000 that Sky will not get Miss Brown to go to dinner with him in Havana the following evening. Like I said this is the 1930’s and apparently dinner in Havana, before Castro, was THE thing to do.
So the bet is on, the game hangs in the balance, and we are off to the races. While we follow this plot on its merry way we are treated to some of Broadway’s most glorious music written by Frank Loesser. Beginning with the opening trio "Fugue for Tin Horses" the music lifts you off your seat. It is classy and classic. Actually the score was completed before the book, which may explain why it is so clearly the backbone of "Guys and Dolls."
All the actors do what they are supposed to, which means that Lauren Graham pretty much walks off with the show because all the good bits of the story seem to involve Adelaide. The combination of Grant and Bierko sounds great but doesn’t pass the smell test. Kate Jennings Grant has the thankless task of wearing the dullest outfits on the planet (what can one do with Salvation Army maroon?). She has a glorious voice and we get a real hint of passion in the duet "I’ll Know" that she sings with Sky Masterson, but it is never matched in the scenes that follow, which is too bad. Craig Bierko is also a wonderful vocalist and has blue eyes that could stop a freight train. When singing, however, those baby blues are trained on the rear balcony, which will no doubt result in several young women being swept off their proverbials during this show’s run, but has the added effect making the rest of the audience want to stand up and turn around so we can see what Bierko is looking at.
The real problem is that Oliver Platt’s role is not being enough. The last I saw of him was in 'Shining City' where he eclipsed the text as well as the other actors. As Nathan Detroit, the man with a jones for crap games, he comes up a little missing onstage and a little short, but for Platt this just means he is not stupendous.
The choreography is glorious, and what a pleasure to see it performed with this orchestra. Why the orchestra is behind a screen onstage and not in the pit is a mystery, but it may have to do with the size of the theatre. The Nederlander is t-i-n-y. The seats are packed in closer than the worst airline. The stage is small and was overwhelmed by the computer graphics that guided us from location to location, and the two vintage light bulb signs hanging from each side of the stage were whimpering for a larger house in which to shine.
The entire production has a sort of not quite together quality. Miss Adelaide wears a body stocking in her strip numbers. The wireless microphones are visible as little nodules on the front of the men’s fedoras and catch the light so perfectly you want to hand each of them a handkerchief to wipe the blob away. Musical numbers lack the crisp finish that our ears are looking for. Even the iconic "Sit Down, You’re Rockin" The Boat' is restrained until Nicely Nicely Johnson (Tituss Burgess) takes over, but instead of trusting the score as is, the number is turned into something that resembles an audition for 'American Idol.' This crystallized what was bugging me. The story might be from the 1940’s but the actors were anchored in the present, which leaves everyone involved neither here nor there.
Still and all, the audience LOVED this production. They were cheering and hollering at the curtain call. So I say, long may they wave. People will come to the theatre and walk out humming the music. If they are like me, they will be humming the music for quite awhile. Yes to that. Guys and Dolls is good to the bone, and a less than perfect production may well be enough.
As my chum said, “We need this right now.” So nu?
What the press had to say.....
"uninspired new revival" & "Provides a valuable lesson in the importance of chemistry by demonstrating what can happen without it — even to a show as seemingly foolproof as “Guys and Dolls."
New York Times
"flatfooted" & "Instead of glitz and tricks, McAnuff would have been far better off casting leads who could sing Frank Loesser's dazzling songs in all their glory and vividly breathe life into the high-rollers and Holy Rollers"
New York Daily News
"This production of Frank Loesser's masterpiece is a puzzle, all right: How can something so zippy be so tedious?
New York Post
"Des McAnuff’s uneven, charm-challenged production doesn’t entirely kill that pleasure, no matter how hell-bent on wreckage it sometimes seems to be."
"uneven, frustrating experience" & "this Guys and Dolls never stays afloat long enough to transport us.
"tarted-up and dumbed-down revival"
"a nigh-perfect musical entertainment has been plunged into limbo, suspended between cartoon and noir in director Des McAnuff's appalling revival."
"a joyless perversion of the buoyant 1950 musical."
"Talent notwithstanding, and there is a lot of it, this "Guys and Dolls" is so leaden and uninspired, it might as well be called "Men and Women."
"theatrical explosions are rare in this revival, a "Guys and Dolls" in need of a little rafter-raising soul-saving itself."
"Fronted by four likable leads whose collective charisma never rises above medium wattage, the production sucks the personality out of an American musical-theater classic. The consolation is that even in this misconceived presentation, the show itself is too good not to be at least minimally entertaining."