DC area fans of Broadway’s golden age musicals have had a heck of a 2010-2011 season. Arena Stage re-launched itself last fall with a mega-boffo new production of Oklahoma!. (It’s back this month for a reprise.) The Kennedy Center presented a fine traveling production of South Pacific last Christmas. And now, Wolf Trap is hosting a short run of Guys and Dolls at the Filene Center through Sunday. This snappy new touring production Frank Loesser’s classic brilliantly captures the both the improbably lovable gangsters and the hilariously energetic silliness of the original.
Guys and Dolls was based primarily on the short story “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown,” initially penned by Damon Runyon, whose humorous, fictional sketches of barely respectable Brooklynites and denizens of midtown Manhattan were wildly popular throughout the Great Depression.
Frank Loesser determined to bring Runyon’s world to the stage in Guys and Dolls, putting together fresh music and lyrics to a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows with the latter doing most of the heavy lifting. The result was an instant hit that’s been periodically revived ever since. With some additions and deletions, it was also made into a popular 1955 film, starring Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando.
Guys and Dolls revolves around two improbable love stories that pop in and out of a long-running illegal gambling operations. This “floating crap game” is hosted by twitchy, dapper Nathan Detroit (Steve Rosen) who makes a living skimming the top of the winnings while holding off a marriage commitment to his long-time stripper girlfriend Adelaide (Megan Sikora).
In a parallel plot, dapper gambler Sky Masterson (Ben Crawford) gets ensnared in a bet with Detroit that requires him to cadge a dinner date with uptight Salvation Army officer Sarah Brown (Erin Davie). Masterson’s bet ultimately takes him to Cuba and back with Miss Sarah in tow. In the meantime, Detroit’s floating crap game is complicated by the arrival of Chicago gangster Big Jule (Brendan Averett) who wants a piece of the action. Looks like big trouble and disastrous romantic complications for sure. But this is Broadway, and an improbably happy ending is eventually wrung out of the plot.
Guys and Dolls is known for its great tunes, and this production’s traveling cast knows just what to do with them.
As Nathan Detroit, Steve Rosen—who appeared in a different role in the show’s 2009 New York revival—leads “da boyz” in “The Oldest Established,” one of the show’s signature songs, and has plenty of fun in his dueling duet with Adelaide, entitled “Sue Me.” Rosen’s Detroit, appropriately, is far less dapper than Frank Sinatra’s screen depiction. He’s a bit more like Phil Silvers’ Sgt. Ernie Bilko, a lovably hapless sap who nonetheless has his own kind of dignity and usually ends up at least breaking even.
As his significant other, Adelaide, Megan Sikora gets the best jokes and the best lines of the show and knows how to put them all over the top. Her main song, “Adelaide’s Lament,” is hilarious, and her kinetic singing and dancing infuses the entire show with a healthy, nutty energy.
As the more staid Sarah Brown, Erin Davie does her best to interpret her stiff, Salvation Army character as morally righteous, yet not incapable of being romanced by a dapper gambler. Davie is excellent as she portrays Sarah’s gradual, yet fitful melting away as she meets the real world half way. Her vocals are a little high and thin, but nonetheless appropriate for Sarah, by far the most delicate character in this show’s rough and tumble world.
At the top of the list, though, is Ben Crawford’s Sky Masterson. Crawford plays Masterson as tough but dignified, and not incapable of being swept off his own feet by an improbably romance with a religious fundamentalist. Crawford’s operatic baritone is strikingly dramatic, authoritative, and convincing, particularly in his famous number “Luck Be a Lady.” He sings with tremendous conviction, and his phenomenal diction gives each line an amazing clarity in the often cavernous-sounding Filene Center.
Other cast members do their bit to add even more pizzazz to the production, from Brendan Averett’s hugely tall, blustering Big Jule, to Jan Neuberger’s scene-stealing goofiness as General Cartwright, to roly-poly Glenn Rainey’s marvelously funny turn as Nicely Nicely Johnson. Better yet, his rollicking rendition, along with the chorus, of “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” got the whole audience involved as the second act drew to a close.
The show’s direction was crisply and professionally handled by Gordon Greenberg, aided and abetted by the bouncy choreography of Patti Colombo.
Kate Sutton-Johnson’s sets were a marvel of color and quiet efficiency. Charlie Morrison’s colorfully nonsensical gangster costuming was great fun. And the small pit band, under the baton of music director Mark Hartman was generally good, save for a raggedy start at the beginning of the show.
That said, the band was quite small, buttressed by multitasking keyboards rather than real musicians, something that’s becoming increasingly fashionable but irritating in big productions like this. Let’s find a way of getting a few more live musicians into the pit, folks, even if it means trimming the bottom line a bit.
Wolf Trap’s Guys and Dolls is loads of fun, and well worth threading your way through the Tyson’s Corner construction mess to see. But do it now, before it’s gone.
Guys and Dolls
Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser
Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows
Directed by Gordon Greenberg
Choreography by Patti Colombo
Produced by Wolf Trap
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
Running time: Two hours, forty minutes including intermission