Damon Runyon’s Broadway is newly ablaze in neon. The flashing marquees and verticals of the Great White Way’s movie and “burlesk” houses provide a glittering frame for this revival of “Guys and Dolls,” one of the few really great American musical comedies.
Braced by the terrific score by Frank Loesser and a devilishly clever book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, director Des McAnuff has prescribed a fast-moving environment for Damon Runyon’s denizens of a certain ilk and of a specific time. In support, scenic designer Robert Like and video designer Dustin O’Neill have created a truly spectacular, fluidly panoramic vision of the Times Square area of New York City. But have they collectively served one of the greatest of American musical comedies? I believe only fitfully.
With its steel girders, considered as much an integral part of the big city as are the familiar buildings, streets, hangouts, and haunts that pass before our eyes, this arena couldn’t have been made more hospitable for those fabled dawn to dusk gamblers and con men who are always on the lookout for the all-night crap game. Five will get you ten that you will not see a production with more visual excitement this season. In Act II there is an awesome scenic transition from street to sewer for the big and brilliantly danced crap game that will blow you away.
Perched on three levels at the back of the stage, the orchestra, under the musical direction of Ted Sperling, revs up an audience who are quick to respond affirmatively not only to the musicians’ visibility but also to the familiar and beloved melodies. The overture, enhanced with the sounds of the city, segues directly into the exhilaratingly staged opening scene that provides glimpses of “the devil’s own city” a dingy pool hall, gambling den, and the interior of a bank wherein a robbery is in progress. Book-ended by the added-on presence of Runyon (Raymond Del Barrio, who is also in the dancing ensemble) sitting at his desk typing out “Broadway Stories,” the production is quickly turned over to the show’s familiar characters.
It’s a promising start for what turns out to be an otherwise disappointing and inexplicably humorless production. This great homage to those fabulously flamboyant flimflam men and their floozies was first produced on Broadway in 1950 to the delight of theatergoers who kept it going for 1200 performances. Two limited-run City Center revivals, one in 1955, the other in 1965, and the 1976 and 1992 Broadway revivals prove that this musical doesn’t lose its sass or its fun. Well, not until now.
While many musicals tend to lose their luster, appeal, and popularity with future generations, “Guys and Dolls” has only to re-validate itself by right of its wit and charm. One can only wonder why acclaimed director Des McAnuff wasn’t able to inspire his four key players to give more than merely perfunctory performances. You have to keep asking yourself, what was McAnuff after? In this production’s favor are the supporting players, who gratifyingly lift the show to a level above the barely acceptable. For the key performers who have been recruited to handle that hilarious vernacular and the great Loesser score there seems to be a concerted effort to play down the distinctive Runyonese cadences. Only a few in the company appear to be completely comfortable in the skins of these comically archetypal types.
Sadly, Oliver Platt as Nathan, Craig Bierko as Sky Masterson, Kate Jennings Bryon as Sarah Brown, and Lauren Graham as Adelaide are the most egregiously distant from Runyon’s oeuvre. Bierko, who made a big splash in the title role of a revival of “The Music Man” almost 10 years ago, seems to be only half-heartedly committed to creating the kind of dapper, charismatic gambler who, against his better nature, falls in love with mission girl Sarah. It is one thing to be cool and suave and another to be uninteresting. Bierko does sing well enough as in the wistful “My Time of Day” and the more commendably energized “Luck Be a Lady.”
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is Platt who, despite his lauded prowess as a dramatic actor on stage (“Shining City”), in film (“Frost/Nixon”) and TV (“The West Wing” and “Nip/Tuck”) hasn’t yet found the key to unlock the inherent humor that makes the questionably street-wise Nathan Detroit endearing. Too often looking lost and forlorn among the more admirably caricatured tin horns around him, Platt may yet find a hook on which to hang his unique talent, but as yet, he hasn’t found it.
I wish I could say that Kate Jennings Grant got the calling to play mission girl Sarah Brown, but she turns in the kind of provisionally earnest performance that might have steered any number of typical Sarah Browns over the decades to “Follow the Fold.” Grant, who was impressive as Bette in last season’s of “The Marriage of Bette and Boo,” does yield nicely to the romantic demands of “I’ll Know,” “If I Were a Bell,” and “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” the duet she sings with Bierko.
The ever-lovin’ ever-fianced Adelaide is, perhaps, the character who everyone looks forward to seeing. What an opportunity is missed by Graham (who is making her Broadway debut) to make something special out of this sexy bundle of big town pulchritude and, in particular, “Adelaide’s Lament.” Always considered a sure fire show-stopper, the song, with its sniffles and sneezes, relies on the performer’s ability to be comically poignant. No such luck. While no one expects Adelaide to be a carbon of either the role’s sublime originator, Vivian Blaine, or the incomparable Faith Prince (in the 1992 revival), we do expect to be amused by this endearingly perennial show girl. We aren’t.
Graham has her best vocal moment in the duet with Grant “Marry the Man Today.” By then the audience has been sufficiently warmed up by the always rousing 11 o’clock number “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” led by the super-charged tenor Titus Burgess, as Nicely-Nicely Johnson. The reliable Mary Testa is plenty funny and gets laughs as General Cartwright helping to insure that “Sit Down. . .” remains as the musical’s one sure-fire show-stopper.
The two tacky Hot Box extravaganzas, “A Bushel and a Peck,” and “Take Back Your Mink,” have been choreographed with no particular invention by Sergio Trujillo amid the obligatory bumps, wiggles, and squeals. Trujillo’s choreography for the scene in “Havana” is more exciting and sexier, beginning and ending with the sight and sound of an airplane roaring over our heads. Costume designer Paul Tazewell has created some wonderful attire, particularly the men’s snappy suits and a stunning dressing gown for Ms. Graham.
Credit must go to director McAnuff for rounding up a fine supporting cast, notably, Jim Walton as Harry the Horse (catch the whinny in his laugh) and Steve Rosen as Benny Southstreet. These two guys display a genuine instinct for playing, among the assortment of gamblers, hustlers, and assorted sharpies, two of Runyon’s most memorable characters. Jim Ortlieb sings with warmth the touching “More I Cannot Wish You.” McAnuff, who helmed the huge hit “The Jersey Boys,” keeps the action on the big street flowing in the glow of Howell Binkley’s extravagant lighting. All Broadway shows are a crapshoot, but “Guys and Dolls,” even with four leads who can’t pull it off, is probably an odds-on favorite to win over another generation. **
P.S. After 13 years with the musical “Rent” as a tenant, the Nederlander Theatre has been given a deserved face-lift. Workmen were still applying and smoothing wet cement outside the theater at the Saturday matinee I attended. Inside, the freshly painted interior is notable for its pale green walls with gilded trim. The carpeting, a leafy pattern of soft brown tones, adds to the overall autumnal look. In the long tradition of Broadway houses, the seating remains comfy but cramped and the restrooms even more so. Never architecturally palatial or distinctive, the Nederlander Theater, nevertheless, continues its destiny as the only remaining Broadway theater south of 42nd Street.
“Guys and Dolls,” Nederlander Theater, 208 West 41st Street. $50 to $125. 212-307-4100.