For its current production Hopewell’s Off-Broadstreet Theater has taken on a Broadway icon, “Guys and Dolls.” Based on stories by Damon Runyon, “Guys and Dolls” was a Broadway hit in 1950, running for 1,200 performances and winning five Tony Awards. A movie version was made in 1955; its cast included Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Jean Simmons, and Vivian Blaine. Theater casts were much larger in the 1950s; Off-Broadstreet’s production has 16 cast members, six of whom take on multiple roles. There are also more musicians than is usual at Off-Broadstreet (though they represent only a fraction of the number who would have been in the pit on Broadway): keyboardist Peter Wright, bass player Robert Gargiullo, trumpet player Tom Twardowski, percussionist James Jarvie, and reed player Jack Furlong.
In a nutshell, “Guys and Dolls” takes place in New York City and involves a group of gamblers who are always looking for safe places to engage in their illegal activities and who need to placate and console the women who love them and who tend to feel neglected. One of these women, Adelaide, has been engaged to Nathan Detroit for 14 years and is constantly suffering from what is referred to as respiratory diseases (a cold) because her fiance pays more attention to his gambling than to her. Another conflict centers on the role of the Save-a-Soul mission, which has set up a branch office in one of the neighborhoods frequented by the gamblers. The head of the group intends to shut down this branch if the missionaries are not more successful in converting some sinners, and in the meantime the head of this branch, Sarah Brown, despite her best intentions, falls in love with one of the gamblers, Sky Masterson.
As members of the audience wander in to the theater before the show to take their seats and have their dessert, their attention will likely be caught by the painted panels on the stage in front of them. Representing details of the city, the colorful scenes portrayed on these panels are fresh and witty but restrained. Made of three tall, narrow pieces that can be closed or opened up, the panels serve as the set, so that this densely populated production, which takes place in seven locales, can be managed by just a few people in a theater as small as Off-Broadstreet. The panels are the work of Justine Provenzano, who has been involved with Off-Broadstreet since she was a teenager. She has poured coffee for the patrons and has worked on sets before, but this is her first complete set. She also serves as house manager for this production.
Many of the songs from “Guys and Dolls” became standards and will be familiar to the audience: “A Bushel and a Peck,” “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” “Luck Be a Lady,” and “Marry the Man Today” are just four examples out of many. But one of the charms of this production is that even those who know the piece well are unlikely to have seen it in such an intimate space, which always enables the audience to discover new things about a work.
The costumes have been designed by Michelle Rittman. Some of those worn for the dance routines are more glitzy, more in your face, than you’ll usually see at Off-Broadstreet. The choreography is by Julie Thick and, in harmony with the greater commotion expected in this piece, more unrestrained than much of her recent work. Many members of the cast are Off-Broadstreet veterans. Barry Abramowitz, as Big Jule, does not have his own song, but he is critical to the plot, and he seems to have amused his fans by finding some gravel in his voice they hadn’t heard before. Sky Masterson, the gambler who falls for Sarah Brown from the missionary, is ably played by John Bergeron. Elizabeth Rzasa, a newcomer to Off-Broadstreet, is Sarah. She has a strong well-placed voice, but some of the time she seems to push too hard for a theater the size of Off-Broadstreet, and she ends up sounding edgy. Jim Petro, who plays Nathan Detroit, is another Off-Broadstreet veteran. Miss Adelaide, his frustrated fiancee, is played by Vicky Czarnik, another newcomer to Off-Broadstreet, but an experienced performer who has been nominated for several Perry awards.
The numerical demands of the show are responsible for several positive outcomes, among them the unusual fact that Julie Thick appears on stage. She plays General Cartwright, the head of the evangelical group. It’s quite understandable why it doesn’t happen, but it’s a pity that we can’t see Julie Thick on stage more often. She was most convincing as a stern and self-righteous superior. Bob Thick takes on the role of Arvide Abernathy, a member of the evangelical group. It is a minor role, but it is one with a song, and it was certainly a pleasure to hear him sing. It’s all too easy to forget that the man who does everything else at Off-Broadstreet happens to be a classy singer.
Other cast members include Curtis Kaine as the ineffectual policeman, Lieutenant Brannigan; Anthony Natiello as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, a minor role but one that give Natiello a chance to shine on the iconic “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat”; Bill Bunting as Benny Southstreet; Stuart Grow in a variety of roles; and dancers Jaci D’Ulisse, Geoffrey Barber, Jenna Schottlander, and Dani Tucci-Juraga.
It’s a treat to be able to see a show that was presumably written with a standard Broadway theater in mind on the smaller stage of Off-Broadstreet. Miking is not necessary, though it has become almost universal, even in theaters the size of Off-Broadstreet. Without the miking the audience gets to hear the music and take in what is going on without straining.
“Guys and Dolls,” Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Through, Saturday, November 20. Musical comedy. $27.50 to $29.50. 609-466-2766 or www.off-broadstreet.com.