Grease and Guys and Dolls

Except for Masquerade Theatre, what other company this side of the bayou can produce, in back-to-back rep, two so completely different musicals (Grease and Guys and Dolls), yet perform each one to perfection? Both shows boast founding artistic director Phillip Duggins's directorial flair, unending energy and abiding love for musicals, not to mention a stage full of singing, acting and dancing company members whose abundant talent floods over the audience and shames any other troupe. As long as Masquerade's around, the Broadway musical need have no fear of ever going away — or going anywhere at all — it's in the most capable of hands, very much alive, and here in Houston to stay.

If you had to be a one-hit wonder on Broadway, you couldn't write a better classic rock-and-roll musical than Grease (1972). Creators Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, two music and theater friends in Chicago, wrote a play about greasers and their girls in a 1950s high school. Two off-Broadway producers suggested they turn it into a musical. The rest is theater history, and Grease went on to become, at the time, the longest-running Broadway musical, spawning two films, innumerable touring editions and countless regional revivals.

The show is beloved, and although no high school on earth is remotely like Rydell High, the loveable losers who buck the establishment at every turn, but just want a quick feel at the drive-in, speak to the anarchistic teen in all of us. The archetypical characters — head greaser Danny (Brad Scarborough), best pal Kenickie (Luther Chakurian), virginal goody-goody Sandy (Laura Gray) and the naughty Pink Ladies, led by very bad girl Rizzo (Kristin Warren) — sing and dance in a wonderfully goofy parody of those teen movies of the early '60s with Sandra Dee, Annette and Frankie, and a big helping of James Dean. What's missing is Dean's mumbling angst — except for when Rizzo gives the musical a good, swift kick in Act II with her pop anthem "There Are Worse Things I Could Do." She knows she's bad and will take her lumps accordingly. Warren nails this, as does everyone in the cast. Chakurian could show new moves to Elvis with his startling "Greased Lightning," his pelvis-paean to his jalopy, which makes a surprising entrance through the upstage doors of David Higginbotham's versatile unit set; and Braden Hunt doo-wops magnificently as sexy Teen Angel, sent to earth to set beauty-school dropout Frenchy (Kristina Sullivan) on the straight and narrow.

For all its bad-boy attitude, the show's a hymn to conformity and fitting in: Witness Sandy's transformation to the dark side to hook Danny — she still may not put out, but she's gonna look the part. Miss Gray transforms into a very convincing vixen: all legs and smoke. She looks like she'd eat Danny as an hors d'oeuvre.

Thrilling to watch, the be-boppy choreography by Warren, Gray and Hunt, like all Masquerade's recent work, is spot-on, cleverly thought-out and intricately executed.

Guys and Dolls, Frank Loesser's fabulously entertaining musical (1950) based on the Broadway fables of Damon Runyon, is undeniably a masterpiece. Perfectly constructed with an unbeatable score, it's as much of a fairy tale as Grease, spinning its enchanted tale of mismatched couples who will inevitably match up in the mythical kingdom of NY's Tenderloin. Unrepentant gambler Sky Masterson (Ilich Guardiola) falls in love with Salvation Army lass Sarah Brown (Beth Hempen), while low-down craps maven Nathan Detroit (Luther Chakurian) keeps his abnormally patient nightclub singer Adelaide (Rebekah Dahl) in perpetual engagement for 14 years, causing her no end of comic psychosomatic symptoms. Ablaze with toe-tapping standards ("Fugue for Tin Horns," "Guys and Dolls," Luck Be a Lady," "Adelaide's Lament"), wonderfully quirky characters, a literate, hilarious script, and a sweet, full heart, the show percolates with sheer glee. There's nothing like it in the Broadway canon, and Masquerade embraces it with its own full heart.

Fresh from the wit of Noël Coward's Design for Living, former Masquerade member Guardiola throws a winning seven in the about-face role of smooth operator Sky. It's no wonder prim Save-a-Soul Sarah falls for his well-oiled charms. He glides as if on skates; he's that smooth. Mother Theresa wouldn't stand a chance either. Hempen's bright, clear soprano soars in her love ballads, but it's her comic reactions when smashed in a Havana dive — downing those rum milkshakes — that bring Sarah to full life. Best known for his searing portrayals of more tortured musical souls (Sweeney Todd, Jekyll and Hyde, Edward Rochester), Chakurian mines the sad-sack humor and sentimental center of Nathan with charming panache. On his knees, skittering over to Adelaide, his "Sue Me" duet is his guilty love song, and he makes the very most — and very best — out of it. Evan Tessier's Nicely-Nicely Johnson, with his bouncing gospel tuner "Sit Down, You're Rocking The Boat," is another standout among standouts.

While everyone in the ensemble shines brightly, there is a crown jewel. That would be Miss Dahl, a living doll of an Adelaide. She's got it all: voice, timing, star presence, incomparable comic instincts, acting chops and gams. She can break your heart and make you laugh through your nose in the blink of an eye. While she works her stage magic, she knows just what she's doing and how to do it, yet it's all pure and spontaneous. She's a unique, special talent. As Adelaide sings, "What makes you think that I am one of those girls?" Don't worry, Miss Dahl. You're not.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover