Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser
Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows
Based on the Story and Characters of Damon Runyon
Directed by Rudy Hogenmiller
Choreographed by Clayton Cross
Conducted by Shawn Stengel
Produced by Light Opera Works, Evanston
New Talent Keeps an Old Favorite Vital
I’ve seen Light Opera Works do such a fine job producing classic Broadway musicals, I could hardly believe that this is the thirty-five year-old company’s first Guys and Dolls. Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows’ 1950 adaptation of the short stories of early twentieth century reporter Damon Runyon seems like the perfect show for a company that specializes in presenting entire scores with a full twenty-four piece orchestra. But maybe it was better that artistic director Rudy Hogenmiller waited until his company was truly ready, for with its lush, beautiful design, powerful singers who are also excellent actors, and intricate choreography by Clayton Cross, a better production of Guys and Dolls than this one is difficult to imagine.
The show is subtitled “A Musical Fable of Broadway,” and Light Opera Works’ website contains a history by business manager Michael Kotze of how the show developed into a quirky, satirical comedy, rather contrary to its original producers’ intent. (Guys and Dolls was also selected for the Pulitzer Prize in 1951, but the advisory board vetoed the decision due to book writer Abe Burrows’ entanglement with the House Un-American Activities Committee). The story takes place in a neon Gotham, which we are introduced to in a dumb show featuring thieves, fences, con artists, dirty cops, and all manner of low-lives cheerfully cavorting to the tune of “Runyonland.” It is there that Nathan Detroit (Steve Silver) runs an itinerant game of craps, and Sarah Brown (Elizabeth Telford) leads the Save-a-Soul mission in futile attempts to Christianize New Yorkers. Currently under an unusual degree of scrutiny from the cops, Detroit needs a new venue for his craps game fast, but doesn’t have the money to rent one. His only hope is to bet Sky Masterson (Justin Adair), a handsome young professional gambler, that he won’t be able to convince Sarah Brown to go on a date with him that evening to Havana, Cuba.
Will love, forgiveness, and temperance triumph over greed, cowardice, and apathy? Well, yeah, but only with tongue-firmly-in-cheek. This is a Christian salvation story as told by Jewish comics, and if the tartan suits, impulsive round-trip to Havana in a single day, and thoroughly irritating missionary march “Follow the Fold,” aren’t enough to make obvious that Guys and Dolls isn’t meant to be taken at face-value, the famous show-stopping testimonial song “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” (hilariously delivered by Cary Lovett as Nicely-Nicely Johnson) certainly should be. I mention this because on the way out of the theatre, I overheard some other young people complaining that the show promotes regressive values. That’s a bit like saying no self-respecting Coloradan could watch South Park. Perhaps if Light Opera Works wants to expand their following into the under-sixty crowd, they’ll have to stop taking for granted that everybody already knows and understands these shows, and provide them with a bit more context. Kotze’s online dramaturgical note about possible lingering tension in the script between the producers’ and writers’ visions would be a good place to start.)
Certainly, the young talent onstage has a great appreciation for their roles. Justin Adair, who played Lieutenant Cable in Light Opera Works’ production of South Pacific earlier this season, returns with his booming, melodious baritone to a role he imbues with high energy and steady charm. His rousing “Luck be a Lady” is more a command than a prayer, and he rolls his dice like he’s bowling during a number for which Cross has devised his most sinuous, fluid choreography. He is rightly recognized as one of the Chicago musical scene’s greatest rising talents. Adair has a fine partner in Elizabeth Telford, whose powerful voice is matched by a keen comic sensibility. Watching Sarah Brown surprise and overwhelm Sky by breaking out of her shell in Havana is a real pleasure, as is her song “If I Were a Bell.” Steve Silver and Sarah Larson, as Nathan’s long-suffering fiancé Adelaide, make a second highly amusing pair, and all the dozens of ensemble members display great talent throughout the whole of the show in every aspect of their performances.
Shawn Stengel’s conducting of the full orchestra gives Frank Loesser’s jazzy score the joyous bounce it requires, and Aaron Quick’s sound design is so finely balanced, that Loesser’s clever lyrics are never lost, and Stengel must have taken care to emphasize the importance of diction to his actors. He and Burrows gave the characters distinctive verbal tics which fill out Guys and Dolls’ quirky world noicely, and the rest of Hogenmiller’s design team follows their lead by bathing the stage and its inhabitants in vibrant, gaudy, colors. I mentioned the tartan suits above, but Brenda Winstead’s outrageous costumes have to be seen to be believed, and Andrew H. Meyers’ dazzling lights move seductively with Cross’s choreography. Like The Merry Widow last year, Guys and Dolls is the perfect combination of beauty and mirth for celebrating the New Year. But this one’s humor has a lot more of a kick.
For more information, see Guys and Dolls’ page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson Street, Evanston, Illinois. Tickets are $34-94 ($36-96 on New Year’s Eve), ages 21 and younger half-price (suitable for 8 and older); to order, call 847-920-5360 or visit musictheaterworks.com. Plays through January 3, 2016. Running time is two hours and fifty minutes with one intermission.