A Critic’s Lament
by Barbara Waldinger
The world situation being what it is, how welcome is the prospect of seeing Guys and Dolls, the delightful and carefree Frank Loesser 1950 musical! Based on several stories by Damon Runyon, the show won five Tony awards, including Best Musical, and went on to numerous revivals on Broadway and in London, productions world-wide, and became a popular film in 1955. The book, by Jo Swerling and then Abe Burrows– who was denied the Pulitzer Prize in 1951 because of his difficulties with the House Un-American Activities Committee (maybe everything wasn’t so carefree after all)–concerns the misadventures of New York City gambler Nathan Detroit and his quest for the cash to secure a venue for a craps game. Desperate, he bets Sky Masterson, a high-stakes gambler who would bet on anything, that Sky will be unable to convince Salvation Army missionary Sarah Brown to accompany him on a dinner date to Havana. Meanwhile, Detroit has to fend off poor Adelaide, a nightclub entertainer at the Hot Box, who, after fourteen years of engagement is adamant about marrying him, since she has written to her mother about their longstanding marriage and five children. The comic escapades of these unlikely couples, the intertwining of the Salvation Army and the gamblers, add up to an entertaining story line, accompanied by Loesser’s entrancing music and lyrics.
Alas, this big, sprawling extravaganza proves too much for the company gathered by The Theater Barn in New Lebanon. Neither the performers, despite their best efforts, nor the skimpy set and insufficient band, are equal to the task.
Director/choreographer Kelly Shook cast performers who can sing, which is a good thing given the sublime songs. The leading actors: Nick Abbott (Sky Masterson), Katherine McLellan (Sarah Brown), Andrew Pace (Nathan Detroit), Katie Luke (Adelaide), and some of the minor players, including Paul Urriola (Nicely-Nicely Johnson) and Andrew Martinelli (Benny Southwest) all have strong voices, especially Abbott and Luke. Although Shook’s choreography succeeds in certain scenes, it falls flat in others because the cast, except for a couple of obvious dancers, cannot keep up with her ideas. But three exciting dance sequences, each involving a number of cast members, give a taste of what might have been. During the overture, in a scene repeated at the end, Runyonesque characters scramble about the stage, engaged in various New York City activities: tourists taking photos, hustlers escaping a policeman’s surveillance by hiding money and cards in a baby carriage, drinkers, newspaper readers, a pickpocket nun, and Salvation Army marchers, complete with a huge bass drum. In the second act, below street level, the lovable gamblers throw down money and dice in a graceful Crapshooters’ ballet. And late in the proceedings, the singing and choreography of Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat, the showstopping number, brings the scene to vivid life. If only the rest of the production could maintain this level. Unfortunately Shook allows too many scenes to peter out at the end, without a suitable “button” to provide closure.
It is often said that the ideal musical theatre performer is a triple threat: adept at singing, dancing, and acting. There are very few performers in this production who have the acting training to make the story believable, not an easy task in view of the stock characters, contrived situations, and Runyon’s language: a combination of formal speech (involving no contractions) and colorful jargon. For Guys and Dolls to have a chance at success, we must care about the struggles of the four main characters. Though Abbott’s handsome appearance and powerful voice work well for Masterson, he too often adopts the poses of a seducer without the inner life that would actually win over a strait-laced woman like Sarah. McLellan, with her lovely soprano voice, finally loosens up in the second act, but ironically there is not much chemistry between them. Pace and Luke as Nathan and Adelaide should supply the comic relief, but Pace’s mugging gets in the way. Luke, on the other hand, despite an unfortunate and unnecessary attempt to adopt Blaine’s high-pitched voice, conveys the humorous frustration (and cold-symptoms) of Adelaide. Mention must be made of the song More I Cannot Wish You, sung by John Trainor, as Sarah’s grandfather Arvide Abernathy, who advises Sarah to allow her love for Sky to overcome her objection to gamblers. There is genuine caring between grandfather and granddaughter, and a welcome poignancy to their interaction.
The very basic set, designed by Abe Phelps, consists of a newsstand with old magazines and newspapers, a flat representing the mission with a too-narrow door on the outside and a desk and chairs on the inside, a tall structure draped with orange fabric for the HOT BOX, a small cabaret table, and old 1950s ads on the upstage black curtain. The result, unhappily, has the look of a high-school production. The band (led by music director Alan Schlichting) plays its heart out, but with only a piano, drums, and bass hardly provides the musical accompaniment necessary to make the show fly. The lighting (designed by Todd Allen and Gabe Karr) is fine, but the most effective member of the design team is Jade Campbell, the costume designer, whose colorful, period creations are a joy to behold.
After a draggy first act, the second act bounces back, so you may decide that a visit to The Theater Barn is worth your while. But if you love Guys and Dolls, perhaps you should consider waiting for a better all-around production.
Guys and Dolls runs from August 24—September 3 at The Theater Barn. For tickets call 518-794-8989 or online at www.theaterbarn.com
The Theater Barn presents Guys and Dolls; Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser, Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows. Cast: Nick Abbott (Sky Masterson), Katherine McLellan (Sarah Brown), Andrew Pace (Nathan Detroit), Katie Luke (Adelaide), Paul Urriola (Nicely-Nicely Johnson), Andrew Martinelli (Benny Southwest), Marc De La Concha (Rusty Charlie), Sky Vogel (Big Jule), Levi Squier (Harry the Horse), Nolan Baker (Angie the Ox), Liane Zielinski (Hot Box Girl 1), Megan Koumis (Hot Box Girl 2), Conner Milam (Hot Box Girl 3), John Trainor (Arvide Abernathy), Mike Hays (Lt. Brannigan), Barby Cardillo (General Matilda B. Cartwright), Olivia Bullock (Agatha). Direction and Choreography: Kelly Shook; Costume Design: Jade Campbell; Lighting Design: Todd Allen & Gabe Karr; Set Design: Abe Phelps; Music Director: Alan Schlichting; Stage Management: Chelsey Moore. Running Time: two hours 30 minutes, including intermission, at The Theater Barn, 654 Route 20, New Lebanon, NY 12125, from August 24, closing September 3.