By Jeff Ritter
“Guys and Dolls” is a classic in the annals of musical theatre, and the Kirkwood Theatre Guild’s strong cast shows why.
Since its 1950 Broadway premiere, it’s drawn some of the best talent to perform the beloved Jo Swerling, Abe Burrows and Frank Loesser material. Marlon Brando, Ewan McGregor, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hoskins, Nathan Lane, Oliver Platt, Lauren Graham, J.K. Simmons and St. Louisans Robert Guillaume, and Ken Page, just to name a few, have played prominent parts on major revivals in New York and London as well as the 1955 film.
Now you can add local favorites Jeffrey M. Wright and Kelvin Urday, emerging star Chris Strawhun and delightful newcomers Jacqueline Roush and Rebecca Porwoll of KTG’s production to that gilded list of thespians who have notably performed this longtime audience favorite.
For those of you who have somehow managed to miss the show up till now, the plot revolves around two star-crossed couples, inveterate gambler Nathan Detroit (Wright) and his best girl Miss Adelaide (Porwoll), and legendary gambler Sky Masterson (Urday) and his mark-turned-muse Sister Sarah Brown (Roush).
As the gamblers might tell you, it’s like this, see: Detroit runs a high stakes underground craps game that is never kept in the same venue from night to night for fear of the cops. Adelaide, a local show girl, wants him to clean up his act and marry her. Her stress over his chosen occupation and unrepentant ways is manifesting itself in her physical health.
Needing a quick cash infusion to lock in a venue for the dice game, Detroit bets Masterson that he can’t get frigid crusader Sister Sarah Brown to accompany him to Havana, Cuba for dinner. Being the consummate ladies’ man and professional scoundrel, Masterson manages to make good on the bet by betting Sarah that he can fill her failing Save-A-Soul mission with a room full of reasonably semi-repentant sinners and gamblers.
Even though the gents are little shady, it shouldn’t be much of a spoiler that both couples overcome the obstacles in their path. After all, it’s musical theatre, and the golden oldies like “Guys and Dolls” never send audiences home sad.
Where director Adam Grun’s production really shines is the songs. “Fugue for Tinhorns” is one of the best musical songs anywhere. It’s song sort of in the round and in three-part harmony, with three actors describing the reasons why they’re each backing a particular horse in the daily races. When it’s done right, it’s brilliant. Benny Southstreet (Robert Doyle), Rusty Charlie (Dan Horst) and Nicely Nicely Johnson (Strawhun) do it right.
Perennial favorites “Luck Be A Lady Tonight” and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” were both well done by the increasingly comfortable Urday and the scene-stealing Strawhun respectively.
Roush, a Milwaukee transplant, and Porwoll, who hails from the other end of I-70 in Kansas City, each turned in lovely performances. Roush has a classic leading lady quality to her voice, making “I’ll Know” and “If I Were A Bell” memorable.
Porwell shows more comedic flair doing a soft send-up of Marissa Tomei’s Mona Lisa Vito from “My Cousin Vinny” (why isn’t that a musical?) in the cutesy night club number “Bushel and a Peck” and “Marry the Man Today.” Her rants against Nathan Detroit in “Sue Me” play perfectly opposite excellent tenor Wright’s more tender defense of his gender-driven tendency to be a “guy.”
As Nicely Nicely, Strawhun delivered a powerhouse performance on every song he was in, and surprised as a pretty good dancer too. Look out, St. Louis, Strawhun could be the next big star in town!
The show wasn’t without a few small missteps, however. The audio suffered from some technical problems, including an odd flareup of feedback in Act II that caused everyone’s voice to echo for about half of a scene.
Arvide Abernathy (Jim Wamser) was drowned out by the band in his only song. The band, at times, seemed to be a little out of sync. Perhaps it’s because they’re usually down in the small bunker under the stage, and for this production they are the major set piece, right smack in the middle of the stage. They’d be playing out the end of a song when an actor would come on the set before the music for the next scene even began. The 16-piece band, conducted by Sean Bippen, sounded fine, but either the musicians or the actors seemed to be ever so slightly out of sync with each other at times.
Likewise, the choreography of the Hot Box Girls was also not quite as tight as one expects. Certain dancers looked elegant and graceful from years of practice while others looked like they might be relatively new to dancing.
Perhaps it’s a product of the world we live in, but the dialogue in this show, with lots of antiquated terms for women, is showing its age. Nobody calls women dolls, dames, or broads anymore without repercussions nowadays.
With all due respect for period authenticity, it did start to feel a little stale after roughly three plus hours of it. With 17 scenes in two acts, plus a 15-minute intermission and pre-show announcements, the show runs rather long.
Shortcomings aside, Kirkwood’s production of “Guys and Dolls” is still a good show with a strong cast and some exciting performers to keep an eye out for on various stages across town. Put Strawhun, Porwoll and Roush on your radar whenever you’re looking for a theatre show on any given evening.
Kirkwood Theatre Guild presents “Guys and Dolls” May 4-6, May 11-13 at the Robert G. Reim Theatre, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. For more information, visit www.ktg-onstage.org or call 314-821-9956.