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!

Saturday, June 1, 2019

May Round-Up: We Saw a Bunch of Plays

Sherwin Resurreccion and Regina Marie Williams in
The Brothers Paranormal (Photo by Jeff Wheeler)
So, we saw a bunch of plays but got really busy and completely forgot to tell you about them. Sorry!

We were forced to tell people individually
about the plays we loved, which is inefficient at best and ever so tedious.

So here's a retroactive recap:

The Brothers Paranormal - Penumbra Theatre Company and Theater Mu coproduction
Written by Prince Gomolvilas and directed by Lou Bellamy, this gorgeous play is a both a spooky ghost story and a haunting meditation on grief. Brothers Max (Sherwin Resurreccion) and Visarut (Kurt Kwan) are ghost hunters engaged by Delia (Regina Marie Williams) and Felix (James Craven) to explore mysterious happenings at their house.

The Brothers Paranormal is a marvelously crafted play with rich, full characters. The performances are outstanding by the entire cast, including Leslie Ishii as the boys' mother and Michelle de Joya as Jai. In particular, the chemistry and affectionate teasing between Williams and Craven is #relationshipgoals. And a big shout out to the wonderful Sherwin Resurreccion who is one of the most fascinating actors to watch--any time we get to see him act is an utter delight.

Ordway Cabaret: Rise Up - Ordway Center for the Performing Arts
Before he left his position at the Ordway as producing Artistic Director, James Rocco created a series of musical theater revue shows called the Broadway Songbook. Sharing his own love for musical theater, a talented cast performed a variety of musical theater numbers organized around a particular theme. In his absence, the Ordway has continued these revues, now in their Ordway Concert Hall, and their recent Ordway Cabaret: Rise Up is a treat. Directed by Kelli Foster Warder, this thoughtful performance provided "an evening of songs from ground-making Broadway musicals that shine a light on revolutionary moments in time" (from the director's note). And if you think that doesn't include Hamilton? You'd be wrong.

In this iteration of the Ordway Cabaret, the cast shared their own personal stories and sang songs that represented their heartfelt stories. The cast was comprised of Aimee K. Bryant, David Carey, Deidre Cochran, Brianna Graham, John Jamison, Hope Nordquist and Max Wojtanowicz and everyone was outstanding. I would be eternally happy to just listen to Aimee K. Bryant and John Jamison sing--alone or together. Don't miss the Ordway Cabarets--it's a rare treat.

La Traviata - Minnesota Opera
Although the popularity of the great classics allows Minnesota Opera to put on exciting and engaging new work, sometimes I sigh when they come up in the rotation. But sometimes, a production reminds me why these became the great classics. A lovely spare production, this La Traviata featured an amazing cast. Nicole Cabell as Violetta and Jesus Leon as Alfredo sang beautifully, acted the hell out of their parts, and had real chemistry. Add in Joo Won Kang as Alfredo's father Giorgio--whose voice was STAGGERINGLY rich and vibrant--and we had a powerhouse trio leading this opera. Also, and not incidentally, it was a treat to see such racial diversity represented on stage. YAY, MN Opera and keep it up!

Five-Fifths of Mary Poppins - Minnesota Fringe Festival at Park Square Theatre
Minnesota Fringe Festival's annual fundraising benefit performance is a yearly treat. This is only the second we've seen, but we're on board for all future performances. Read more about this and past performances at our friend Cherry and Spoon's blog. Long story short, The Fringe takes a movie, cuts it into five parts and asks five artists to interpret it using their own unique approach and style. This year's offering, Mary Poppins, was interpreted by Shrieking Harpies (music improv), Sheep Theater (theater), Oncoming Productions (theater), Javier Morillo (storytelling), and ALL DAY (dance). So fun, and such a great kickoff to the annual Fringe Fest.