At the Shaw Festival this season, characters in George Bernard’s plays share the stage with crap shooters (“Guys”), nightclub girls (“Dolls”), hoodlums, and bums, notorious spiffy dressed denizens of 1950s New York’s midtown. These denizens of the inner city are documented in literature by author/journalist Damon Runyon known for his vernacular portraits of the Broadway gambling scene.
Runyon’s style has been labeled “Runyonesque” describing his characters in their unique nocturnal gaming situations who conversed in distinctive “slanguage,” dialogue always spoken in the present tense.
These likeable high rollers don’t answer to every day Tom, Dick and Harry names, but to colorful monikers like “Nathan Detroit,” “Harry the Horse,” “Nicely-Nicely Johnson,” “Benny Southstreet,” “Rusty Charlie,” “Angie the Ox,” and “Big Jule.”
From Runyon’s short stories came the wit, the pathos, and the sheer spirit-lifting exuberance of Frank Loesser’s wonderful 1950 award-winning musical fable of Broadway, Guys and Dolls.
Loesser ranks as one of the finest American songwriters of all time — more versatile than most of his peers, perhaps with the exception of Irving Berlin. No doubt this can be related to Loesser’s insatiable curiosity and his persistent habit of seeking acquaintance with people of every description, which translated to the fleshed out characters in his musicals.
The plot spotlights two couples: ditzy cabaret entertainer Miss Adelaide, her ne’er-do-well boyfriend, Nathan Detroit who avoids marital commitment (they’ve been engaged for 14 years), and suave, slick talking gambler Sky Masterson who has his sights set on Sister Sarah Brown, a Salvation Army type officer. Detroit runs the “oldest established permanent floating crap game” in New York (a rousing production sequence). He is frantically seeking a place to play and needs $1,000 to secure the Biltmore Garage as the location. Nathan bets high-roller Sky Masterson that Sky can’t get the mission doll Sarah to go to Havana with him for dinner.
The characters catch the eye, but their singing of Loesser’s marvelous music and lyrics attract the ear. Guys and Dolls emerged in the era when Broadway musicals were a pipeline to the “hit parade”. It was a time when more than a few songs from each show were regularly listed on the weekly (lasting for weeks) pop music charts, thus designating them as “standards” or “chestnuts.” Guys and Dolls contributed memorable gems including A Bushel and a Peck, If I Were a Bell, I’ve Never Been In Love Before, More I Cannot Wish You, and Luck Be A Lady. A plum role like Nicely-Nicely Johnson usually brings down the house with his singing of the gospel-inspired Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat. Thom Allison gives all admirably, but is overshadowed by memories of the portly Stubby Kaye who originated the role and reprised it in the 1955 film.
The cast is strong collectively, so picking standouts is niggling, but worthy mentions belong to married couple Shawn Wright (Nathan Detroit), Jenny L. Wright (Miss Adelaide), Kyle Blair (Sky Masterson), and Elodie Gillett (Sarah Brown). Shaw veteran Peter Millard (Arvide Abernathy) is more actor than singer. His performance of More I Cannot Wish You, a beautiful song of compassion, lacks empathy. Guys and Dolls is also one of the few shows where the men in the cast get showier dance numbers than the women.
There’s much to enjoy in this production, passages when the show undoubtedly achieves lift-off, but….could my rose-tinted memories of past glories and better staging viewed by many as definitive be dispelled? I risk being labeled curmudgeonly in noting the show never quite achieves that sense of pure and continuous pleasure I felt in past productions. It seems uninspired and uneven at times failing to capture the drop-dead humor, charged energy and personalities these eyes have seen before.
I’m rolling the dice by saying this Broadway classic gets a serviceable though not spectacular production at Niagara-On-The Lake. It suggests that the whole is less than the sum of its parts with a difficult-to-define missing energy. But then, if you’ve never seen the show, just disregard my grumbling, sit in on the action and be swept away by one of Broadway’s greatest musicals.
“Guys and Dolls” plays through October 12
Article by: Alex Reynolds