Joel Hurt Jones (Nathan Detroit), Quinn Patrick Shannon (Nicely Nicely Johnson), Gavan Pamer (Benny Southstreet) Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Public Theater
Anytime you put two contrasting subsets of characters in the same pot - or plot, you’re bound to end up with some interesting results. This is especially true for "Guys and Dolls," the 1950 hit musical in which a pack of craps shooting, racetrack junkies, grifters and their molls cross paths with a band of ardent Christian crusaders intent of saving souls and vanquishing sin.
The potent synergy that results when the those who inhabit the shadowy world of petty street hustlers and ingrained gamblers encounter loftier folk intent on reform is what gave "Guys and Dolls" its popular appeal and propelled the Jo Swerling/Abe Burrows written opus (with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser) skyward. "Guys and Dolls captured the 1951 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and took home five Tony Awards that same year.
Based on the short stories of Damon Runyon which capture so well the colorful underbelly of New York street life in the 1930s, the musical was successfully adapted for film and enjoyed numerous stage revivals both in New York and London. Currently, it’s getting an inventive and highly polished staging at the O’Reilly Theater Downtown by Pittsburgh Public Theater.
In the elevator, I managed to hear PPT artistic director, Ted Pappas, who directs and choreographs the show, say that "Guys and Dolls" is one of his favorite musicals. His enthusiasm for the work certainly shows with its super-charged, high-energy production in which no staging elements seem to have been compromised.
Not only is the cast copious by most standard, it’s decidedly talented as well. The eight-piece orchestra, while out of sight, plays with an impressive bravado, on cue tempos and rhythms and impeccable musical artistry that gives a lustrous support to both the singing and dancing.
Capturing the Runyonesque mood, there is a certain cartoonish quality to the characters who only seem to parody real life, but accentuate the show’s inherent comedy by doing so. The colorful zoot suits and chorus girl outfits designed by Martha Bromelmeier are the perfect match for the New York-ese patois that’s such an integral part of the characterizations.
The catalyst for the play’s meeting of contrasting points of view, life styles and ethical outlooks is the unlikely romance between debonair high roller, Sky Masterson, and the high-minded, goodie two-shoes, Sarah Brown, one of the evangelizing mission stalwarts.
Rather than experiencing a relationship that sparks spontaneously, the meeting of this romantic duo has more devious, manipulative roots. It’s the result of a $1,000 bet Masterson makes with crap shoot organizer, Nathan Detroit, that he can woo and win the heart of the scrupulous lass.
As Masterson, Charlie Brady has the suave charisma needed to portray the show’s alpha male character, but it’s his strong, melodious singing voice that stood out most in his performance. As Brown, the pert and lovely, Kimberly Doreen Burns, shows an initial reluctance to succumb to his repeated advances, but beneath the surface there’s a smoldering attraction that erupts during a day trip with Masterson to Havana, my personal favorite scene in the show.
During her short Cuban adventure, Brown lets down her hair and gets a taste of a more devil-may-care perspective fueled by a sip or two on a rum infused, dulce de leche. Adding even more beguiling elements to foster her temporary transformation, set designer, Michael Schweikardt, makes the best use of his versatile, semi-circular, mid stage structure that serves as the anchor for the opening street scene then rotates 180-degrees to evoke other locales, including the seductive Havana restaurant bar in which Brown enjoys her foreign adventures.
The bar is also the setting for Pappas’ best choreographic effort when he creates a fiery, erotic tango-rumba-samba-type dance performed by two accomplished dancers who show as much costume-lite skin as talent.
|Kirsten Wyatt (Miss Adelaide) Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Public Theater|
As Brown, Burns shows off her robust singing voice in the following scene when she solos in "If I were a Bell." However, Kirsten Wyatt gets my vote for the winner of the production’s award for comedy and most-finely tuned characterization. Her Miss Adelaide dominated every scene she was in. She spoke her lines with a humorous adenoidal tone and didn’t let her air head persona stand in the way of touching hearts with her vulnerabilities and the disappointments of her 14-year engagement to Nathan Detroit.
Speaking of which, Joel Hurt Jones captures his character’s leadership qualities as head of the local clan of ne’er -do-wells, able to bully them into doing his bidding, but also prone to cowering in front of formidable adversaries like Big Jule (Jerry Gallagher), whose initial entrance onstage is one to look out for
Abetted by some of Pappas’ nifty choreography that has the ensemble moving en suite in some captivating maneuvers, Quinn Patrick Shannon as Nicely-Nicely Johnson brings down the house in his animated rendition of "Sit Down, You’re Rockin the Boat."
In a supporting role, Tony Bingham gets the performance’s biggest laugh with the look on his face and the way he enters the mission hall expecting to crash into a crap game but instead getting treated to a prayer meeting.
Dare I say that the evening’s biggest disappointment was the slew of songs penned by renowned composer, Frank Loesser. I’m sure it’s theater blasphemy to say there wasn’t one in the bunch that I particularly cared for. Oh, except for the lyrics to "Marry the Man Today." Even though all the songs are all well presented, that still didn’t prevent me from missing what swarms of theater-goers before me heard that had them rhapsodizing about the score.
|(left to right) Mara Newbery, Stephanie Maloney, Quinn Patrick Shannon, Larry John Meyers, Sharon Schaller, Andrea Weinzierl|
"Guys and Dolls’ is at the O’Reilly Theater in Downtown Pittsburgh through February 28. For tickets, phone 412-316-1600 or visit ppt.org.