By Lynn Venhaus
Broadway’s glorious past merges with The Muny’s dazzling state-of-the-art present in “Guys and Dolls” for a sensational start to the second century that bodes well for the future.
What an ideal show to show off the new stage and other upgrades made possible through the Muny’s Second Century Campaign!
As impressive as the changes set out to be, all the spiffy new elements made this endearing show sparkle – the redesigned stage allowed the action flow smoothly, the sound was crystal clear (designers John Shivers and David Patridge) and the lighting systems’ enhanced illumination by designer Rob Denton and the expanded LED screens, with video designs by Nathan W. Scheuer, were eye-catching. Director Gordon Greenberg was able to incorporate the new downstage lifts into scenes. Overall, an A+ effort.
Besides the successful revelation, the weather was tailor-made for the 101st season opener June 10. A crowd of 7,677 enjoyed one of Broadway’s most delightful golden-age classics, filled with Frank Loesser’s peppy and hummable musical numbers, sweet romance, and colorful characters based on Damon Runyon’s short stories and given zip by the late comedy writer Abe Burrows.
Jaunty and joyous, “Guys and Dolls” combines hustling high rollers and honorable holy rollers in the bustle of the fabled Times Square, their intentions clashing when the gamblers want to be lucky and the evangelists want to save souls.
Paul Tate dePoo III’s vibrant scenic design of neon signage and advertisements reflects a flashy bright lights, big city vibe that pops in every scene.
Once dubbed “the perfect musical comedy” by a critic and I wholeheartedly agree, the Muny proved how evergreen the show can be, now in its eighth time here and 15 years since the last one. The talent made sure this first bicentennial production was a crowning achievement by integrating all the new-fangled improvements seamlessly.
Greenberg bathed this frothy concoction in the warm glow of
nostalgia while emphasizing the humor and elevating the romance. The high-spirited
cast injected it with zing through crisp and snappy movements, whether it was a
sharply choreographed number – those elastic dancers in “Crapshooters Dance”
and “Havana” made it fun — or the wise-guys singing Nathan Detroit’s praises
in “The Oldest Established.”
First-time Muny co-choreographers Lorin Latarro and Patrick O’Neill intertwined different styles with energy and precision, and Music Director Brad Haak freshened the songs, with arrangements by Larry Blank. Musicians were under a covered pit for the first time, carrying the upbeat tempos well.
The creative team focused on the original 1950 roots and the rock-solid cast cheerfully immersed themselves in this idiosyncratic world. One must accept its now dated story as a period piece to fully appreciate the relationships. Calling women “tomatoes” and “broads” is no longer acceptable, and no one in contemporary times would, but this is from a bygone era – and displays how different men and women roles were back then.
“Guys and Dolls” took Damon Runyon stories about New York City from the 1920s and 30s, namely “The Idyll of Sarah Brown” and “Blood Pressure,” with a nod to “Pick the Winner,” and radio comedy writer Abe Burrows boosted Jo Swerling’s original script by giving the distinctive characters Runyon’s unique vernacular, a mix of formal speech with slang. Damon, a newspaperman and sportswriter, favored writing dialogue for gamblers, hustlers, actors and gangsters.
However, this Runyonland appears more innocent. Detroit, the hapless but lovable mug behind the biggest crap game in NYC, keeps his adorable girlfriend Adelaide waiting for him to marry her after 14 years. The prim and proper Sarah Brown falls in love with the suave Sky Masterson in an opposites-attract storyline.
The script makes all of this seem logical and then throws in merry men named Benny Southstreet and Rusty Charlie, and it’s a surefire winner, especially with Kevin Cahoon hilarious as Harry the Horse and so is Brendan Averett as Big Jule.
From the first bars of the opening number “Fugue for Tinhorns” to “The Happy Ending” finale, this cast connects with each other, and ultimately, the audience.
As the sophisticated ladies man Sky Masterson, Ben Davis is a welcome presence on the Muny stage, continuing his successful run of classic male leads after Curly in “Oklahoma!” and Emile in “South Pacific.” He has palpable chemistry with Brittany Bradford, who is one of the best Sarah Browns I’ve ever seen (sometimes, the actors playing these different types don’t gel, but this pair does). Their clashing couple delivers velvety-smooth ballads.
Bradford is quite a special talent, genuine in acting and a splendid soprano. Her breakout number, “If I Were a Bell,” shows her versatility. Their “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” superbly blends their voices, another standout moment, and his sleek “My Time of Day” rendition was terrific.
Davis propelled “Luck Be a Lady” to be one of the evening highlights, aided by the crackerjack ensemble.
St. Louisan Kendra Kassebaum lights up the stage as Miss Adelaide, and wow, what a home-grown triple threat. Bubbly and bouncy, she displays impeccable comic timing in her fully dimensional lived-in performance.
She’s a fitting and funny foil for wacky Nathan, well-played by Jordan Gelber. Their “Sue Me” was on point, and “Adelaide’s Lament” is confident and comical. She leads the Hot Box Girls in a vivacious “A Bushel and a Peck” and “Take Back Your Mink.” (Tristan Raines’ costumes fit each role appropriately, but those purple-sequin gowns draped with the gray furs are stunning.)
Kassebaum and Bradford are a dynamic duo in “Marry the Man Today” (just don’t wince at those lyrics).
The best scene, the second act showstopper that puts its indelible stamp on “Guys and Dolls,” is “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.” A marvel of movement and pure jubilation, this version is made even more special by the surprise appearance of Kennedy Holmes, the Muny Kid who placed fourth on “The Voice” in 2018, belting out the usual General Cartwright solo. (Zoe Vonder Haar has replaced Doreen Montalvo as General Cartwright),
Orville Mendoza fits, well, nicely, as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, who leads the number, and is dandy in his duet with Jared Gertner as Benny in the title number “Guys and Dolls.”
As Arvide Abernathy, Ken Page has a twinkle in his eye and adds poignancy to the “More I Cannot Wish You” number sung to his granddaughter, Sarah. This is his 41st appearance at the Muny – and little-known fact, he played Nicely-Nicely in the 1976 Broadway revival.
The musical has been revived two more times, in 1992 and 2009, with the 1992 version starring Nathan Lane and Faith Prince the most acclaimed, winning four Tony Awards including Best Revival and running until 1995, tallying 1,143 performances. The original “Guys and Dolls” won five Tony Awards in 1951, including Best Musical, and has been a favorite among regional, school and community groups for decades.
That renowned 1992 version’s spunk is evident in this Muny production, but the cast makes it their own. They put a fresh sheen on the characters, imbuing them with heart and humor, and it never sags.
This production is worth rejoicing about, starting out the summer in swell fashion.
The Muny presents “Guys and Dolls” June 10 – 16 nightly at 8:15 p.m. in Forest Park. For tickets or more information, visit www.muny.org
Photos by Phillip Hamer.