The set up:
Ah, Guys and Dolls, the prohibition-era show about gambling gangsters and the women who love them. It’s one of those musicals that people who don’t really like musicals still like. And for folks who do, it’s been dubbed as close to a near perfect musical comedy as a show can get. Based on two short stories by Damon Runyon, Guys and Dolls (music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows) took home the Tony for Best Book and Best Musical when it premiered on Broadway in 1950. The show would have nabbed a Pulitzer for Best Drama as well but for some nasty business with Burrows and the House Un-American Activities Committee that caused the Trustees of Columbia University to veto its selection and not award a prize that year.
Then there’s the 1995 movie version starring none other than Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Frank Sinatra and Vivian Blaine that also took home several prestigious film nominations and awards. Add to the list the fact that several songs from the show such as Luck Be a Lady, Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat and Bushel and a Peck, have become part of the American hummable lexicon, and it’s hard not to agree that Guys and Dolls is a beloved classic in a category enjoyed by few other shows.
Which makes any production of it fraught with land mines. Do you try and replicate previous winning productions? Or put a different take up on stage and hope people will come along for the ride? And who do you upset or bore along the way? Bayou City Theatrics has chosen to dip toes in each pool. This is still essentially your grandparents Guys and Dolls. You won’t find all-female casting for instance, nor is the show now set in some alternate era or given steam punk treatment. Instead BCT describes the show as a revitalization with some new choreography and innovative design that they hope will bring a freshness to the musical.
They’ve given us their marker, so time to cash in.
The story, for those that need refreshing, revolves around a wager. Craps game organizer Nathan Detroit (a wooden and overly deliberate Kyle Ezer) bets big time gambler Sky Masterson (the lovely voiced but slightly stiff John Green) that he can’t get Missionary Sister Sarah Brown (the angel voiced but also stilted Victoria Riley) to go on a date with him in Havana. Detroit needs the money to front his floating craps game that has run out of inexpensive venue options.
As Sky attempts to woo Sarah, Nathan has his own doll to contend with, his fiancée for 14 years, Adelaide (Blair Wingfield in a ‘give this woman a contract somewhere she is that stupendous’ performance). Adelaide is none too pleased with Nathan’s illegal games and is not shy to say so. Nor is she quiet about the fact that 14 years is quite enough for her to wait around for an engagement to turn into an actual marriage. The guys try to master their dolls and the dolls try to change their guys’ ways. And so the musical goes.
The first point of departure is noticeable right from the sparse opening number, Fugue for the Tinhorns (colloquially known as the Paul Revere horse song). Director/Designer Colton Barry has opted to leave the stage blank. As in no props at all save for a lightbulbed sign that gets wheeled in whenever the action moves to the Hot Box, the nightclub where Adelaide sings and dances.
It’s a risky decision to set the show so minimally, but with the thin and long bowling alley of a stage Berry has to work and the number of cast members populating the space (20 by my count) it was probably the wisest decision. Especially since Berry and Choreographer Luke Hamilton have enough trouble trying to fit all the action on to the stage in any kind of elegant or appealing manner. Too often the cast was crammed together, hampered by the tiny space and lack of creative ways to populate it. Scene transitions which saw actors busily striding the four steps or so it took to cross the stage lacked the energy needed to keep the flow of the action interesting. Even when faced with just a few performers on stage, Berry seemed unable to let them do much more than simply stand around and deliver the famous songs.
Facing the same tight confines, Hamilton’s choreography was decent in principle but so restrained in execution (for fear of banging into walls?) that any sizzle it may have had petered out pretty fast. But perhaps more problematic was the unrehearsed feel of all the dance numbers. Without exception, the dancers were out of step and the numbers were shaky, bringing the whole feel of the production precariously towards amateur hour.
Which is not to say that the production didn’t have its bright spots. While Hamilton’s ability to galvanize his dancers on stage was lacking, his turn as Nathan’s friend, Benny Southstreet, was a delight. With a strong voice that easily outshone the others in his two numbers (Fugue for the Tinhorns and Guys and Dolls) and his wonderfully free flowing, numbskully, low-level gangster performance, Hamilton often stole the spotlight away from the major characters. Plus it should be noted the man can move. Hamilton injected himself into the one co-ed dance scene set in a Havana restaurant and almost made us forget how lackluster the overall number was with his ‘can’t take our eyes off’ him talent.
Berry also stepped onto the stage as Nicely Nicely Johnson, another of Nathan’s sidekicks and added some much needed over the topness to the show. This is a classic musical comedy after all; we want to laugh at the ridiculousness of the people on stage. In sharp contrast to the lack of comedic timing exhibited by Ezer’s Nathan among others, it was a relief to bask in Berry’s ramping up. With a whiny/weasel-like voice and constant eating (a running gag that had him appear with dozens of different food items throughout the show) Berry brought much needed laughter to the production. Berry also gets credited with fronting Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat the one ensemble musical number that really clicked. With this rousing number we finally got a cast that seemed polished and an energy level that was unanimous.
But really, this is Wingfield’s show with her Adelaide wowing us at every turn and not just because she was one of the few performers onstage that could act as well as she could sing. Wingfield went beyond the caricature of Adelaide as a doll wanting to reform and snag her man and instead gave us a fully realized gal who we wish could have been in every scene. Singing about how her singlehood is making her ill in the show stopping, Adelaide’s Lament, Wingfield manages to be both terrifically funny and heart string-pully despondent. It’s a meaty performance that brings down the house. Similarly, in her duet with Sarah, Marry the Man Today, Wingfield manages not to sound simply like a scheming woman hell bent on matrimony, but instead a savvy girl we are all rooting for. It’s these layers that elevate Wingfield to a higher plane in this production.
It’s been noted by my colleague in this paper before that what makes Bayou City Theatrics such a going concern is also often it’s undoing. This a company that is astoundingly prolific in its output but this is also a company that at times feels like their shows are rushed and not quite up to snuff.
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Such is the case with Guys and Dolls. Regardless of how much we enjoy the songs and how lovely some of the voices and acting are, the unrehearsed and not quite thought through elements of the production make this a lukewarm effort at best.
Speaking of temperature, it must be noted that at the time of this review, the air conditioning was out in the theater making it a most uncomfortable and sweaty experience for us all. Two and half hours wondering if we or anyone on stage is going to pass out is not the way a musical comedy should be enjoyed. To riff on Adelaide’s Lament, a puh-son could develop a heatstroke.
Apparently the issue will be resolved by the next round of performances, but just in case, if you are planning on attending, light clothing and a cool drink is strongly advised.
Guys and Dolls continues through August 2 at The Kaleidoscope, 705 Main Street at Capitol, Suite B. Purchase tickets online at BayouCityTheatrics.com or call 832.817.8656. $35 - $40.