Call me prehistoric, but why turn the Frank Loesser/Abe Burrows/Jo Swerling classic musical comedy Guys and Dolls (1950) into In the Heights-lite?
Why pretend this perfect work is set in NYC's barrio? This is either political correctness gone amok or community outreach gone awry.
Bravo to TUTS for hiring a majority Latino cast, but why have the actors play their characters like Gloria in Modern Family, or worse, a bus-and-truck version of Chico and the Man? There are enough pronunciations of “I love chu” to last a lifetime. If Theatre Under the Stars thinks this is diversity, there's a bridge on 178th Street I'm selling. This “re-imagined” production isn't a respectable role model for anyone, especially, I assume, the young minority audience TUTS is attempting to lure into the theater by this surface pandering.
How about something simple: hire a Latino cast and allow them to play the characters as written, without the burden of cultural misappropriation and stereotypical accents?
Although Loesser's sublime lyrics get somewhat garbled under the faux dialect, Guys and Dolls is unaffected by directorial malfeasance. You could set this Broadway-via-Hell's Kitchen fairy tale on Mars and its charms would not be affected or altered. That's the power of a great show like this one. Drape it in a bad concept, and it still comes up smelling like roses.
Once you ignore the feeble Washington Heights overlay, Loesser and Company transport you to a Broadway of your dreams: lowlifes, petty gamblers, tinhorns, bad entertainers in trashy dives, and Salvation Army workers out to save the aforementioned sinners. It's a picaresque world only Damon Runyon could conjure. And it is mighty fragrant and entertaining.
There are two main couples: dangerous and sexy high roller Sky Masterson – is there ever any other kind? – (Omar Lopez-Cepero, dangerous and sexy), who falls for prim and proper Save-A-Soul missionary Sarah Brown (Madison Claire Parks, she of the cut-glass voice and Grace Kelly looks). Sky's best friend, petty gambler Nathan Detroit (Carlos Lopez, woefully forlorn), loves petty entertainer Miss Adelaide (Michelle Aravena, spiky but just as forlorn) but has kept her dangling as fiancée for 14 years, causing her all manner of psychosomatic symptoms. Surrounding them are an assortment of grifters and lovable sleazes like Harry the Horse (Arthur Lazalde), Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Roland Rusinek, who neatly stops the show with the rousing pseudo-gospel “Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat”), Benny Southstreet (Cedric Leiba, Jr.), Rusty Charlie (Michael Anthony Silvester), Arvide Abernathy, Sarah's grandfather (Paul Hope), and vigilant police lieutenant Brannigan, always one step behind the scofflaws (John Johnston).
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It's an entire Big Apple circus of mythical creatures, out for nothing but a good time and that one lucky roll of the dice. Book writer Burrows gives it snap and crackle, and composer/lyricist Loesser gives it everything. What a beauty of a score. It never fails, from the beguiling “Fugue for Tinhorns,” a contrapuntal delight that sets the musical's breezy tone right from the opening; through love ballads “I'll Know” and “I've Never Been in Love Before;” to oddities like “My Time of Day” and “More I Cannot Wish You;” to comedy numbers “Take Back Your Mink” and “A Bushel and a Peck,” to the chart-toppers “Guys and Dolls” and “Luck Be a Lady.” “Adelaide's Lament,” wherein long-suffering Adelaide reads from a medical textbook and comments about her cold, “la grip,” sneeze, and cough, because she's gotten herself sick waiting so long for Nathan to marry her, is perhaps the epitome of all Broadway comic numbers. The song is so classic, it's an audition staple for any musical comedy aspirant. Aravena acts the hell out of Adelaide, giving her hard edges and a soft heart, but her faux dialect mashes Loesser's witty and apt lyrics. She's not the only culprit.
While TUTS' Latino-infused adaptation, directed by Nick DeGruccio, isn't entirely successful, the show's a pip nonetheless, even though Julio Agustin's choreography, busy and energetic, doesn't surprise, and Ryan McGettigan's set design is limited to wispy drops and legs (although his show curtain of the musical's title, made out of directional street arrows, is inspiring).
What matters is the bones, and Guys and Dolls has great bones. It always has and always will, no matter the accent.
Guys and Dolls continues through June 24 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-558-8887 or visit tuts.com. $30-$128 plus fees.