Sunday, June 30, 2019

Guys and Dolls - Guthrie Theater

Why is the show logo cards when the
whole story revolves around a craps game? Hmm.
Although Love is in our name, sometimes we are not full of love. Sometimes we are killers of joy. Sometimes we can't just sit back and take in a show without giving it serious consideration--even if it's summer, even if it's a classic musical, even if it's at the Big G.

That said, here are three things we liked about Guys and Dolls (playing through August 25 at the Guthrie Theater):

1) Represent! Loved the racial and body diversity of the chorus--particularly the Hot Box girls. Yay for a diverse creative team as well. Well done, G.

2) New Faces! Lots of Guthrie debuts from local actors seen often on other stages. Gabrielle Dominique, although not new to the Guthrie, was a fabulous addition. Also, how can this possibly be comic genius Karen Wiese-Thompson's Guthrie debut???

3) Jon Andrew Hegge! Whether playing a hilarious Harry the Horse or as part of the chorus, he was one to watch. His dancing and pratfalls as the drunken gambler were fabulous, as were his subtle (for the show!) characterizations of Harry the Horse. Hegge is always a delight.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Which brings us to the rest of the show, which was pretty disappointing. We've got no issue with the Guthrie and their big summer musicals--after all, they get butts in seats. But we expect more of the Guthrie and all the resources they have on tap. If they're not offering either a fresh take on the musical or really leaning into the classic, then what is the point?

In recent years, the Ordway has presented modern takes or spins on classic musicals to wonderful effect. 2016's Paint Your Wagon featured a new book framing the gorgeous musical numbers that "populates the Gold Rush setting with a cast of characters seldom seen in a classic musical. The racial and cultural diversity here isn't window dressing, but is central to the story in a new and refreshing way." Damn Yankees (in 2015) used its diverse casting to start discussions on interracial relationships and the history of black baseball, while honoring the hell out of the musical. And Theater Latte Da has a great track record of reimagining musicals, such as 2017's Man of La Mancha, with its contemporary detention center setting.

Another option? Do it straight. Last year's Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly, which we saw with Bernadette Peters, was an absolutely perfect production of the musical. Gorgeous design, beautiful costumes, fantastic dancing, and top of the line performances. The Ordway's production of Jesus Christ Superstar in 2017 was another production that played it mostly straight but utterly honored the original show.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Guys and Dolls is already a nearly perfect musical. The book, written by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, captures the unique tone and character of the 1930s Damon Runyon short stories it's based on. The music and lyrics of Frank Loesser provide one show-stopping number after another. The show has been a much-revived musical theater classic since 1950. Even the book holds up surprisingly well, due mostly to the strong characters: Nathan Detroit, organizer of the "oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York" (Rodney Gardiner), his fiancĂ©e (of 14 years), dancer Miss Adelaide (Kirsten Wyatt), Sergeant Sarah Brown of the Save Our Souls mission (Olivia Hernandez), and Sky Masterson, tough guy gambler (Jeremiah James).

Guys and Dolls is a fable of Broadway and takes place in a specific, stylized New York setting with very distinctive language. The Guthrie production, directed by Kent Gash, brings the show forward to the mid-1950s, but one has to wonder why. Is it only so that the opening number "Runyonland" can incorporate coy nods to fifties icons like Marilyn Monroe (and the subway grate) and an Annie Get Your Gun lookalike? And why is Lt. Brannigan dressed like Dick Tracy, complete with two-way wrist radio? This choice doesn't even fit with the character, as Brannigan is a cop who cannot manage to shut down a craps game and Dick Tracy was a successful detective going after big-time criminals. Our biggest peeve about these sight gags is that Damon Runyon's world is very specific, and interpolating random pop culture characters dilutes the effect without adding anything.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson
And although the crowd applauded it at first sight, we didn't love the giant lighted "Guys" and "Dolls" signs hanging over the stage. Understanding that it's not a realistic set, it's still hard to fathom why those words are hanging over the characters during the show. If there were other Times-Square type signage and those words stayed lit at the end of the show, it might be clever. But as a standalone element used seemingly randomly to generate applause, it didn't work for us. Yes, we're picky. What's your point?

The whole thing could have used a bit more subtlety and left us with many questions. Do women have to be wearing visible garter belts to be identifiable as prostitutes (in the opening scene)? Was a drop with rows of pictures of old cars (which looked like shabby chic art from Home Goods) really appropriate shorthand for the underwhelming "Havana" setting? Why did one of the characters in "Runyonland" have a 1960s beehive complete with can of hairspray? Why is the tape outline on the floor so visible? Why is there no explanation of why the show is re-set in the mid-1950s?

Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Don't get us wrong: Kirsten Wyatt was very delightful as the loveable Miss Adelaide, but her histrionics made her seem to be suffering from more than a psychosomatic cold (although her sneezes were adorable). The rest of the main characters felt too contemporary, to the point that Runyon's very specific syntax was lost. Rather than seeming natural (in Runyon's unnatural, stylized way), lines like "She is a beautiful doll, all right, with one hundred percent eyes," felt forced.

There's very little that we require of Guys and Dolls. Having seen myriad productions of the show from Broadway revivals to community theater, we just need two things: 1) The show to honor the material, the gorgeous arrangements and songs, and 2) For our two couples to have chemistry ("Chemistry?" "Yeah, chemistry.") and believable relationships.

We'll say it again: This is the Guthrie. As a "leading 21st-century arts organization", which "creates transformative theater experiences that ignite the imagination, stir the heart, open the mind, and build community through the illumination of our common humanity" (Guthrie website), we expect BETTER.

If you're going to play the show straight, then play the show straight. The rearrangements were unnecessary and undercut the gorgeous material. The rich harmonies ending "The Oldest Established" and "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" didn't get their due with so much focus on movement rather than musicality. Simply not taking back the minks at the end of "Take Back Your Mink"--especially when they left the final line ("Well? Wouldn't you?") does not create a feminist take. Why are cast members stepping? And why, oh WHY is the Guthrie squandering the talents of Regina Marie Williams, Katie Bradley, Robert O. Berdahl, Caroline Innerbichler, Karen Wiese-Thompson, and Angela Timberman? ANGELA TIMBERMAN, y'all. Come on.

And if you're not going to play the show straight, nor are you going to add new layers (as the Ordway has done so successfully), then why do Guys and Dolls? Why not bring the Guthrie's considerable resources to a show that isn't as well known? Hundreds of musicals debuted during Broadway's Golden Age, so tackling one of the others would be a real challenge. Or HEY, what about one of the many, many amazing musicals produced in the sixty-nine years since the debut of Guys and Dolls.

But maybe that's the point. Maybe neither the Guthrie nor its audience wants to be surprised and delighted by a musical. But we do.

Leslie Vincent and Kelly Houlehan in Jefferson Township
Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant
And that's why we're recommending to you to skip Guys and Dolls and head over to Saint Paul for Keith Hovis's Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant (through July 28 at Park Square Theatre). You have the opportunity to see a new, charming musical by a future prize-winning writer, performed by an amazingly talented cast. Trust us. Go see this instead.

And hey, since this show made us long to hear T. Mychael Rambo sing "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat," why not check out 42nd Street at the Ordway (July 23 through August 11 at the Ordway) starring Rambo, Tyler Michaels King, and Jamecia Bennett?

There's a great big world of theater out there. Take a chance!