Monday, March 2, 2009

Theater Review: Guys and Dolls

There are really only two artistic reasons to revive a musical. One is to make a show that is old and familiar into something fresh and newly relevant. The second is to reproduce a classic faithfully in order to present it to audiences who never had a chance to see the original. There is something to be said for the latter reasoning — recent revivals like A Chorus Line and The Fantasticks have succeeded to varying degrees as trapped-in-amber photocopies — and the former method is currently being employed with South Pacific, a show that everybody has seen in one form or another. Unfortunately, the newest revival of Guys and Dolls doesn’t seem to know what sort of revival it’s trying to be, and it fails on both levels. An almost purely mechanical piece of theater, Guys and Dolls somehow manages to be overly familiar and gimmicky at the same time.

Guys and Dolls is considered by many to be the prototypical musical. Nearly every song in Frank Loesser’s still-magnificent score went on to become a standard, and Abe Burrows’s book is a model of comic and dramatic economy, intertwining plots and characters from several of Damon Runyon’s short stories with original material. It has been revived on Broadway about a hundred times (give or take a few), most notably in a critically-adored 1992 production. Combine those productions with the thousands that take place every year in summer stock, bus-and-truck tours, dinner theaters, and high school auditoriums (not to mention frequent television airings of the 1955 film adaptation), and it becomes hard to believe that any lover of musical theater is unfamiliar with the story of Nathan Detroit, Miss Adelaide, Sky Masterson, and Sarah Brown.

When a show is that familiar, it is imperative to infuse any new production with new energy, and director Des McAnuff (late of Jersey Boys) has added a few elements that beg to be regarded as serious “concepts.” A new prologue and epilogue featuring Damon Runyon (Raymond Del Barrio) and his typewriter bookend the show, and a great deal of time and energy is devoted to new, highly acrobatic choreography by Sergio Trujillo: if the idea of breakdancing in a production of Guys and Dolls appalls you, you’ll want to stay home. The set design is also distinctly modern — the orchestra has been moved backstage from its pit in order to extend the stage, and a giant Jumbotron screen serves as a modern (and frankly, tacky) backdrop. Moreover, the numbers featuring Miss Adelaide and her Hot Box Girls are treated somewhat more honestly (that is to say, sexually) than in previous incarnations of the show, and Miss Adelaide herself, as portrayed by Lauren Graham, is a harder character than she has previously been shown to be. She retains few of the squeaky, Betty Boop-esque mannerisms that have become associated with her.

Unfortunately, these changes are purely cosmetic. Rather than revealing anything new about the very familiar characters and situations, the overly long dance breaks and videos of airplanes heading to and arriving from Cuba simply slow down the show. Moreover, they serve as reminders that there really is nothing new going on onstage. For one thing, McAnuff’s staging is rote to the point of being amateurish. It is possible to anticipate every musical solo, because the character delivering it will have invariably made his or her way downstage to sing it directly to the audience. Similarly, romantic duets are presented in strict profile, and dance solos typically end up center stage. This kind of “look-at-me” obviousness gives the production the feel of a high school musical.

The real problem, however, is that Guys and Dolls doesn’t truly work unless the characters are treated as real people with real problems and real emotions. When characters are written as cartoonish stereotypes, as these characters arguably are, the director should be willing and able to bring them down to earth and find ways to make them real. However, McAnuff fails on that level. He seems to see the show as all surface — he apparently made little effort to lead the cast to emotionally-resonant performances. Unfortunately, he has no help from the performers.

Anyone who has attempted to deliver dialogue from Guys and Dolls can be forgiven for thinking that the phrasing is a bit artificial. It is — in fact, the particular patois of Runyon’s New York was largely created by Runyon himself. However, if an actor truly works to understand his character, and speaks Burrows’s words with conviction, it is easy to believe what is happening on stage — this has been proven in numerous productions, most recently in the 1992 revival. How unfortunate, then, that most of the cast recite their lines as though they’re reading them phonetically off a TelePrompTer. It is perhaps for this reason that Kate Jennings Grant, as Salvation Army officer Sarah Brown, fares best of the four leads. As one of the few actors unencumbered with “Runyonese,” Grant evinces more of a connection with her character, and her conflicted feelings for Sky Masterson (Craig Bierko) ring true, as do her solos, which are delivered in a clear and winning voice.

Far less successful are Graham and Oliver Platt, who plays Nathan Detroit. Though both actors (neither of whom is known for musical theater work) have on-key, inoffensive singing voices, neither seem comfortable in their roles. They both do what they’re “supposed to,” (Graham sneezes gamely while Platt’s eyes dart about constantly) but there is nothing in their performances that suggests they believe what they’re saying or that they even know what feelings they’re portraying. As they struggle to define their characters, they also struggle to find any chemistry with each other, making their pairing as unrealistic as their line readings are. Chemistry is also a problem with Grant and Bierko as Sarah and Sky — though both are veteran musical theater performers, they seem more concerned with “doing Guys and Dolls” than they are with making their courtship believable.

The remaining members of the cast similarly struggle to make what they’re doing and saying meaningful. Again, the Salvation Army members come off a bit better than their gangland counterparts do. Jim Ortlieb is surprisingly effective in the unrewarding role of Arvide Abernathy, and comes off as genuinely affectionate toward Sarah. The always-reliable Mary Testa is given little to do as General Cartwright, but does what she can with what she has. Tituss Burgess and Steve Rosen (as Nicely-Nicely and Benny Southstreet), however, are all mannerism and no heart. Burgess’ gospel-ized rendition of “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ The Boat” is loud, but toothless.

Guys and Dolls is durable — if not unkillable. This production will not erase the memory of previous ones, and this surely is not the last time the show will be revived. I only hope that the next group of people to present Guys and Dolls on Broadway has a clear motive in doing so, beyond the promise of reliable box office returns. This production, unfortunately, seems to have no real purpose in mind at all: and it shows.

© 2009, Christopher Stansfield. Some rights reserved. This work is licensed to the public under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License, and may only be distributed according to the terms of said license. To view a copy of this license, please click here.


  1. Correction: Though I claim that "Guys and Dolls" has been revived many times, it turns out I'm mistaken- before the current revival, the show was only revived twice- once in the seventies with an all-black cast and once in 1992 with Nathan Lane, et al. While the show his ubiquitous in other productions, I was in error in claiming that it has been a fixture on Broadway.

  2. Durell K. GriffinMay 5, 2009 at 2:36 PM

    Hey, I'm the guy u sent the link to on facebook, thanks by the way this was a really great revie, it gave me a lot on insight into the production.
    Nicely-Nicley is my favorite character in the show, so i was wondering if u could go into more detail on what u thought on Tituss' overall performance of the character. Also on his big number Sit Down You're Rockin the Boat, which happens to be one of my favorites songs in the show, and how it compared to the '92 version.

    Thanks alot

  3. There's not really a whole lot of detail to go into. Tituss is very game, but I think he largely suffers from the same problems the rest of the cast has- he's less a character than a caricature and, at least when I saw the show, he seemed uneasy with the Runyon dialect (admittedly, he may have grown into it more as time has passed.) "Sit Down" has been arranged to suit his singing voice, which is to say that it is more gospel-inflected than usual. It's a fun number, but it felt just like that- a number. The song feels disconnected from the circumstances leading to and away from it, if you can understand what I'm trying to say. None of this can be blamed directly on the actor- I think the production on the whole suffers from a lack of effort from the top down.

  4. Yea totally get what you're saying. Thanks a lot that helped.

    Kepp reviewing you're good.