Wins and Losses

What compelled Infernal Bridegroom director Jason Nodler to produce a Broadway musical with a five-piece band in a space the size of a two-car garage? It's a decision that had something to do with courage. And lunacy. The resulting production of Guys and Dolls at Commerce Street Arts Warehouse has plenty of both, and offers a vintage portrait of Damon Runyon's 1930s New York City. Runyon, star reporter for Hearst Newspapers from 1920 until his death in 1946, was known around Manhattan for his 60 cups of coffee and three packs of cigarettes a day habit; nationally, he was known for his weekly column that ran in Hearst's chain of papers, and for his enormously popular short stories. From New York's chorus girls and petty criminals, Runyon crafted a witty dialogue style in which people "slap their lips around a lobster" and a gangster's code of ethics that ruled his story lines. Named after Runyon's 1931 collection of short stories, Guys and Dolls was set to the music and lyrics of Frank Loesser in 1941, with street gambler Nathan Detroit and chorus star Miss Adelaide as the leading guy and doll.

Where most productions of this smooth-talking, fast-gambling musical focus on showy production numbers -- "Luck Be a Lady" and "Guys and Dolls" usually getting the frilliest costumes and the brassiest sensibilities -- Infernal Bridegroom Production's show underlines the personal interaction between the streetwise characters, especially with the help of two big personalities in the lead roles: Andy Nelson as a gruff but lovable Nathan Detroit and Tamarie Cooper as the eternally engaged and somewhat shrill chorus girl Miss Adelaide. Pulling Detroit to the altar is a tough job for Adelaide, and she proves in a number of ways that Guys and Dolls is a musical about gambling -- whether with money or with love.

Hedging on production values doesn't pay off as well as some of Guys and Dolls' other wagers. Despite the help of the fine small orchestra, most of the show tunes in the first act are valiantly flat. And while that may be in tune with Miss Adelaide's nasal pleadings for Detroit to marry her, it's a disappointment to hear voices falter where they should be clear -- which happens in almost every solo before intermission. Is this what gangsters sound like when they sing? Probably, but I was hoping for more. Still, despite those stumbles, IBP has crafted a production that stays lively while portraying the somewhat charmed lives of Runyon's petty thugs.

Runyon's intimacy with smalltime hustlers lent him a well-tuned ear for the language of the street, and IBP speaks it with the sassiness necessary to believe that, as the gangster code has it, your marker is as good as your word. Aside from the handsomely polished dialogue, this production's greatest attribute is its vibrant physicality. Things move along in this little space, so much so that it's entirely possible to see the bustle of downtown Manhattan captured with Cooper's inventive choreography (and casting, having landed former Houston Ballet corps member Richard Hubscher as a dancing gangster). Couples flit on- and off-stage with the reckless pursuit of people running for the last train; circles of dancers surround Miss Adelaide; men advance on their knees, women coyly protesting; and best of all is a showstopping Cuban number in which a shy Salvation Army sergeant (Celia Montgomery) is transformed into a rum-drinking tango-mama.

The moral obligations of the underworld are compelling plot devices, and Nelson is comically diligent in his dual commitments as Detroit -- doll, business; business, doll. Only a trouper could woo a woman with a song such as "Sue Me," but Nelson makes it work with as little sap as possible. In her satin lounging pajamas and period hat and coat ensembles, Cooper manages to make despair beguiling, using a variety of wiles to warm her betrothed's longtime cold feet. There are strong performances from the rest of the ensemble as well, particularly Greg Stanley's slow but sweet Nicely Nicely Johnson and DeWitt Gravink's Big Jule, a cigar-smoking gangster who comes from Chicago for Detroit's dice game.

In Nodler's production, the story hangs together well, thanks in part to a richly detailed balance of comedy and bathos, particularly in "I've Never Been in Love Before," a touching duet between Celia Montgomery as Miss Sarah Brown and Greg Dean as Sky Masterson. Following the flashy Cuban dance scene, and exotic drinks that Masterson passes off as "local flavoring," the duet is a distillation of what this Guys and Dolls does well: make clear that gambling underlies every small decision.

IBP gambled too much, and too recklessly, on their vocal quality last Friday, and occasionally the production paid the price. But when it works, it's fantastic.

There's a joke in Joey Berner's new play Not Our Town that goes something like this: "There's no more copies of Our Town anywhere. They've all been used up by community theaters." There's some hard truth to the humor -- Thornton Wilder's work has been abused and sobbed over in any number of gymnasiums in the name of drama. Berner takes his stab at Our Town with a big shot of irreverence, but the result is a group of scenes that feel more like a comedy routine than they do a play.

Occasionally, as in his other productions (Media Darlings and Steak!), Berner's wit runs out, especially in his renaming of Wilder's familiar characters. Emily Webb is referred to as Emily Cobweb, and Henry, played by Berner, becomes a strange amalgam of that name, film director George Lucas and professed serial killer Henry Lee Lucas that keeps changing throughout the play.

With ten actors playing 52 characters, the show moves along at a manic pace. Set in the same small town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, as Wilder's play, Not Our Town sets out to spoil all Our Town's homespun sweetness: people hate each other, crime is rampant, sex is boldly discussed and religion holds as much weight as a bowl of Cocoa Puffs. Just for chuckles, Berner plays the dead Wilder, dragged out of his grave in the play's first scene. The move sets the stage for the rocket-fire slapstick that's Berner's trademark. It's also fair warning of the level of comedy that marks the production.

In many ways, Wilder's Our Town is the kind of play that begs to be made fun of -- nobody ever leaves Grover's Corners. Indeed, the worst thing that happens is that a person dies and gets to spend eternity looking out over the bluff. Not so in this version. Emily bears nine children out of wedlock, Henry develops a blood fetish and Doc Gibbs seeks sexual healing with a hole in a fence. Too often, though, what should have been left out isn't, and the audience is left to endure sight gags such as Ma Webb pretending to stab an imaginary live chicken and then taking a bite before announcing, "It doesn't taste done." Ugh.

There's no thread tying Not Our Town together, except for the dead Thornton Wilder, who occasionally rises and moans, and a string of acknowledgments about how bad the gags are. The one truly fresh moment, in which two furniture kings duel it out for supremacy, stems not from Wilder's play but from Berner's grand sense of popular culture. As with any tight comedy troupe, there are inspired character performances from the cast, especially Bob Morgan as the chain-smoking Stage Manager and Paul Drake as the blind mailman, God, big-wigged Reverend Swagger, mime and ballet dancer.

Recently named the Pretentious Bosom Clutching Theater Company, Berner's troupe aims for outrageousness, and generally hits the mark. Too often, though, the jokes trail off into a pit of punning and spectacle. Berner is at his best, it seems, when he works from his own source material or finds a script wacky enough to match his own talents. Despite Not Our Town's big delivery on outrageousness, Pretentious Bosom can, and should, do better.

Guys and Dolls plays through October 17 at Commerce Street Arts Warehouse, 2315 Commerce Street, 524-2932.

Not Our Town plays through October 19 atthe Zocalo Theatre Compound,5223 Feagan,541-1242.

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Megan Halverson