As the curtain call applause died down, the band launched into their encore exit music, and the predominantly geriatric audience worked themselves upright, the lady sitting next to me gathered her coat and pronounced, “They don’t write ‘em like that anymore.”
She was summing up “Guys and Dolls,” which just opened at the Old Log Theatre in Excelsior. With music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and a book by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling, “Guys and Dolls” is everything you hope a classic musical to be: chock-full of broad showmanship, hummable tunes, and lovable characters.
At least that’s the show’s potential. The Old Log Theatre’s revival, under the direction of its artistic director R. Kent Knutson takes a while (almost mid-way through the second act) before that potential becomes kinetic and the production catches up and fully realizes the momentum of the show.
As a self-proclaimed musical theatre nerd, I was embarrassingly ignorant of “Guys and Dolls” prior to the opening night at the Old Log Theatre. I vaguely knew of its gambling premise and was aware there were some songs about head colds, lawsuits, and rocking boats. And, really, that summarizes it pretty well.
Opening on Broadway in 1950, the entertaining “Guys and Dolls” centers around Nathan Detroit’s attempts to put together an illegal craps game and the escapades that follow in his wake. Sky Masterson, a high-rolling and smooth-talking gambler, and Sarah Brown, an uptight and innocent missionary, fall in love. Nathan’s fiancé of fourteen years, Adelaide, struggles to cure her flu and get Nathan to finally settle down. Mixed in to add variety is a trip to Havana and a craps game in a sewer.
Charlie Clark and Kym Chambers Otto as Nathan Detroit and Adelaide, respectfully, take the show and run, frantically waving for everyone behind them to catch up. I found myself eagerly waiting for one of them to arrive back on stage the instant they left. Mr. Clark comically ricochets around the stage (if not physically then certainly vocally) and Ms. Otto is gleeful in her rendition of “Adelaide’s Lament,” which ended up being my favorite number of the evening.
A lovely singer, Grace Chermak as Sarah Brown was awkward in her transformation from a rigorously pious missionary to a lovesick woman. However, I warmed up to her as the show went on and her “Marry the Man Today” duet with Ms. Otto was splendid. Playing opposite Ms. Chermak was Eric Sargent as Sky Masterson. A tremendous vocalist, Mr. Sargent gave a stilted, one-note performance and couldn’t quite fill the smooth and charismatic shoes that Sky Masterson requires.
Aaron Booth (Nicely-Nicely Johnson), Kyle Schwartz (Harry the Horse), and James Cada (Big Jule) gave noteworthy, defining, and humorous performances, standing out amongst an ensemble that all-too-often relied upon ‘guys’ and ‘dolls’ stereotypes to define their characters. There was a lot of pocket-and-lapel acting that eventually grew redundant.
Much like the stabs at ‘New York’ accents throughout the cast, direction from Mr. Knutson and choreography from Tayla Dozois was hit-and-miss. Almost presented presentationally, characters were often left standing in a line center stage with nothing to do except recite lines. Sky and Sarah’s tedious love songs were sung at the audience, rather than each other. And while some numbers were rousing (“Luck Be a Lady” and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat), others (“A Bushel and a Peck” and “Havana”) were lackluster.
It should certainly be noted, however, that this cast, under the musical direction of Kyle Picha can sing circles around Mr. Loesser’s score and it was a treat to hear these songs belted at my face. Sara Wilcox’s costumes were fun and accentuated the bold characters nicely-nicely. And Erik Paulson provided a simple, stylized newsprint-set that, combined with his lush lighting design, created a world like an old MGM film, where a photograph jerks to life as the movie begins.
Although the Old Log Theatre’s inconsistent production slips in a few places and surges ahead in others, “Guys and Dolls” is inevitably a really hard show to screw up because it does most of the work for you. The book is silly, charming, and harmless, and almost all the songs are hits. (I left the theatre simultaneously humming “Luck Be A Lady,” “Sue Me,” and “Guys and Dolls” at the same time. Or at least it felt like it.)
I definitely agree with the opinion “they don’t write ‘em like that anymore.” Whether or not that’s admirable or disappointing is personal preference. I can say, though, that even when I was underwhelmed by what was happening on stage, I was still thrilled by the structure and content of this standard American classic. But that’s probably just the musical theatre nerd in me.
Dicey though it may be, if you’re in for a good ‘ole reliable musical, give “Guys and Dolls,” a chance. The show runs until June 16.