By Lynn Venhaus
Stray Dog Theatre’s “Guys and Dolls” has gusto from the guys and gumption from the dolls, giving it an extra shot of pizzazz.
This snazzy ensemble puts oomph in every song and every scene, and the young cast provides a freshness to the material that makes this delightful confection very charming.
One of Broadway’s most beloved golden-age classics, the 1950 Frank Loesser musical comedy is such a fixture in school and community theater that you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t seen it, been on a crew or acted in it.
Nearly everyone who has a connection to the play looks back on it fondly, as you just can’t find fault with those peppy numbers, no matter how times have changed. The colorful characters are based on Damon Runyon’s short stories, included in Jo Swerling’s book and polished by the renowned late comedy writer Abe Burrows.
Gary F. Bell’s tight direction, along with Jennifer Buchheit’s effervescent musical direction and Mike Hodges’ dynamic choreography, has created a high-spirited production that pops with personality.
The show is not merely a blast from the past but a peppery, spry and amusing tale of high rollers and holy rollers finding common ground in the hustle and bustle of Times Square.
This production is distinguished by Sara Rae Womack’s bubbly Adelaide, Kevin O’Brien’s conflicted and goofy Nathan Detroit and Mike Wells’ happy-go-lucky Nicely-Nicely Johnson, whose warm tenor propels “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” to be the showstopper it should be.
Womack, employing a Betty Boop voice, delivers one of her strongest performances to date as the optimistic entertainer Miss Adelaide, who has been engaged to Nathan for 14 years. It’s complicated. Womack hits the sweet spot giving long-suffering Adelaide sass but a genuine sincerity too. She and the sunny O’Brien are terrific together, especially in “Sue Me.” And she is a born showgirl leading the Hot Box Girls in “A Bushel and a Peck” and “Take Back Your Mink.”
Womack, O’Brien and Wells have energy to spare, and their enthusiasm playing these roles is contagious, as are the wise-guys and Hot Box Girls who all appear to be having fun.
The animated players Cory Frank as Benny Southstreet, Stephen Henley as Harry the Horse, Yianni Perahoritis as Angie the Ox, Bryce Miller as Rusty Charlie and Jordan Wolk as Liver Lips Louie shake the dust from dodgier versions and deliver that unique slang-antiquated dialogue splendidly.
Then, there is comical Zachary Stefaniak just killing it as the imposing hustler Big Jule. He makes the most of his crap-game moments and doesn’t have to say much to elicit laughs.
The endearing guys have us at “Fugue for Tinhorns” and then it’s crisply-staged jaunty song and dance, and joyful interactions after that – especially a robust “The Oldest Established” and the title song, “Luck Be a Lady.”
On the other hand, Jayde Mitchell has a beautiful, well-trained voice and croons his numbers with skill as cool Sky Masterson – especially “I’ll Know” and “My Time of Day,” but doesn’t exhibit enough swagger as the debonair mobster.
Perky Angela Bubash, who smiles broadly on stage in every Stray
Dog Theatre musical she’s been in, appears to be playing against type as the
uptight Sarah Brown, a prim and proper spiritually-guided woman who questions
her ability to convert sinners to saints and then gets mixed up falling in love
with Sky. It’s a tough character to warm up to anyway – stiff and unyielding
until she drinks rum in Havana and softens to the charismatic bad boy, but Bubash’s
vocal range doesn’t always suit the demanding role, as displayed in “I’ve Never
Been in Love Before.”
It doesn’t help the romantic storyline that Bubash and Mitchell have zilch chemistry on stage. She fares better with Womack in “Marry the Man Today.” And they blend well with their groups. The Save-a-Soul Mission force is led gracefully by Howard S. Bell as kind and warm-hearted Arvide Abernathy, Sarah’s grandfather, whose added Irish accent is a plus. His superb rendition of “More I Cannot Wish You” is touching and one of the highlights.
Jennifer Brown is a confident General Cartwright while Kaitlin Gant as Martha and Alyssa Durbin as Agatha are earnest Mission ‘dolls.’ However, Brown’s blocking in “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” obscures others from view.
Elizabeth Semko, Alyssa Wolf, Molly Marie Meyer and Kayla Dressman are in sync and sparkle as the fizzy Hot Box Girls. Chris Moore is the agitated Lt. Brannigan.
The entire ensemble hits it out of the park with “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” so that “The Happy Ending” seems just a perfunctory wrap-up, but the musical is a jolly good time.
The large band of 11 talented musicians executed the grand score in style and kept a lively tempo throughout, with fine work by music director Jennifer Buchheit on piano; Joe Akers and Ron Foster on trumpet; Lea Gerdes, Joseph Hendricks and Ian Hayden on reeds; Mallory Golden on violin, P. Tom Hanson on trombone, Michaela Kuba on cello, M. Joshua Ryan on bass and Joe Winters on percussion.
While it’s a space crunch because of logistics, Josh Smith’s scenic design made the cityscape tall in re-imagining Times Square on that small stage while lighting designer Tyler Duenow focused on bright lights for the city that never sleeps. Costume designer Lauren Smith captured the era well. Audio Engineer Jane Wilson’s sound was smooth.
This upbeat musical stands the test of time, and SDT has made it a refreshing summer punch. Sit back, let the world go by, and enjoy!
Stray Dog Theatre presents “Guys and Dolls” Aug. 8 – 24, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis 63104. Special matinee at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 18 and added evening performance on Wednesday, Aug. 21 at 8 p.m. Many shows are sold out or near sell-out, so visit the website at www.straydogtheatre.org or call 314-865-1995 for tickets or more information.
Full disclosure: the reviewer has directed two community theater productions of “Guys and Dolls,” in 1992 and 2011.