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Guys and Dolls
Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser, Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows
Based on a Story and Characters of Damon Runyon
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Choreographed by Mike Hodges
August 9, 2019

Cast of Guys and Dolls
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Guys and Dolls is a well-known, oft-produced show known for being colorful and larger-than-life, based on the mid-20th Century New York stories of author Damon Runyon. Now Stray Dog Theatre is staging a production that’s not as big and flashy as other productions I’ve seen, but the scaling down manages to seem more relatable in some ways. It’s a well-cast show that looks great, sounds great, and offers a fresh take on iconic theatrical characters.

The story, witty dialogue, boldly drawn characters, and classic Frank Loesser score are all here, as SDT’s Tower Grove Abbey stage has been transformed into a cross-section of post-World War II New York City. It’s a world populated by gamblers, represented by the determined Nathan Detroit (Kevin O’Brien), who along with his cronies Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Mike Wells) and Benny Southstreet (Cory Frank) is desperately looking for a new venue for his long-running “floating crap game”, to the constant frustration of his long-time fiancee, nightclub dancer Miss Adelaide (Sara Rae Womack). Meanwhile, the Salvation Army-like “Save-a-Soul Mission”, led by the earnest young Sarah Brown (Angela Bubash) and her kindly grandfather Arvide Abernathy (Howard S. Bell) is struggling to find “sinners” to preach to and attend prayer meetings. When high-rolling gambler Sky Masterson (Jayde Mitchell) comes to town, Nathan makes him a bet in hopes of raising the money Nathan needs to secure his preferred venue. It’s a bet Nathan thinks he can’t lose–Sky has to get Sarah to agree to go to Havana with him for the night. Their relationship builds from animosity to something more as the gamblers gamble, the missionaries preach, the long-suffering Adelaide deals with a persistent cold as she continues to wait for the devoted but reluctant Nathan. Throughout, the memorable songs and production numbers are there, from the initial “Runyonland” setting-establishing sequence and “Fugue For Tinhorns”, to the iconic “Adelaide’s Lament”, the giddy “If I Were a Bell”, the rousing “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” and more.

Guys and Dolls is a show of types, and different productions can make the setting and characters more over-the-top than others. At SDT, the “types” are still there, but they’ve been brought down in scale somewhat, in a way that makes them seem more like real people you could have met. The couples are strong, especially, with Womack an especially credible Adelaide, bringing the audience along with her in her exasperation with Nathan, delivering a strong “Adelaide’s Lament” and an even stronger reprise in Act 2. O’Brien is a likable Nathan, with good chemistry with Womack and also with his gambler compatriots, the equally excellent Wells and Frank. Wells especially gets a fine moment leading the show-stopping “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat”. The show’s other lead couple is also impressive, with Mitchell giving a slightly edgier take on Sky, and Bubash in an engaging turn as an increasingly conflicted Sarah. These two have particularly strong moments in their scenes at the end of Act 1. Bell is a standout as Arvide, as well with a great voice on his song “More I Cannot Wish You”, which is also a strong moment of connection for him and Bubash. There’s a small but energetic ensemble to support the leads, bringing much enthusiasm to the production.

Although the show isn’t as flashy as it is sometimes staged, it’s still richly detailed, with a stunning unit set by Josh Smith that captures the atmosphere and look of the time and place, along with excellent, period-appropriate costumes by Lauren Smith. There’s also bold lighting by Tyler Duenow and a great band led by music director Jennifer Buchheit, doing justice to the show’s familiar score. There were some odd sound-mixing issues on the night I saw the show, but for the most part, it’s a strong, stylish production.

This is a fun Guys and Dolls. It’s the same classic show, but adjusted well to Stray Dog’s smaller venue. It’s a “Musical Fable” that’s a little more on the “down to earth” side, and for the most part, it works. This is another strong showing from Stray Dog Theatre.

Sara Rae Womack and Cast
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Guys and Dolls at Tower Grove Abbey until August 24, 2019

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Guys and Dolls
Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser, Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows
Directed by Gordon Greenberg
Choreographed by Lorin Lotarro and Patrick O’Neill
The Muny
June 10, 2019

Cast of Guys and Dolls
Photo:The Muny

The stage looks bigger. That was my first impression when the Muny’s Executive Producer and Artistic Director, Mike Isaacson, appeared on the newly rebuilt stage to introduce this season’s opening production, Guys and Dolls. It’s a new era for the Muny, unveiling its newly revamped performance area and technical setup, and they’ve chosen a classic 1950s-set Broadway musical to introduce the “new Muny” to the audience. I’m not sure if the stage really is any bigger, but it looks big, shiny, and new, but what’s not new is the expectation of an excellent show, and the Muny has delivered that with an energetic, fast-paced and thoroughly entertaining production of this well-known “musical fable”.

Guys and Dolls is a show of its time, and that time is the early 1950s. The place is Damon Runyon’s stylized New York City. It’s not supposed to be gritty and realistic. It’s broad comedy, for the most part, and the sensibilities can be jarring to 21st century eyes. The focus is on gamblers and the women who probably shouldn’t love them, but do anyway. Nathan Detroit (Jordan Gelber) is the proprietor of a notorious “floating crap game” who, along with his cohorts Benny Southstreet (Jared Gertner) and Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Orville Mendoza) is eager to find a new place to host the game while they avoid the watchful eye of the persistent police Lt.Brannigan (Rich Pisarkiewicz). He’s also been engaged for 14 years to the increasingly exasperated nightclub dancer Miss Adelaide (Kendra Kassebaum), who is nursing a frequent cold apparently brought on by her stress over the situation. Meanwhile, high rolling gambler Sky Masterson (Ben Davis) is in town, and in order to secure the money he needs for his crap game location, Nathan makes a bet with Sky, involving the pious young Sarah Brown (Brittany Bradford), who works for the struggling Save-a-Soul Mission. It’s a show full of larger-than-life and deliberately broad characterizations, with stereotypical gamblers and visions of New York City, along with a great score and lots of energetic dancing.

One notable fact, casting-wise, about Guys and Dolls is that there are four equal leading roles. It’s not a lead couple and a supporting couple. All four roles–Adelaide, Nathan, Sarah, and Sky–share the same prominence, and the casting for all four is essential. The roles here are memorably played, and the chemistry (“yeah… chemistry!”) is excellent. Davis and Bradford show off strong voices in their roles, and Bradford shows strong comic ability with her fun rendition of “If I Were a Bell”. Gelber is fun as a the marriage-avoidant and crap-game obsessed Nathan, and Kassebaum conveys Adelaide’s increasing weariness along with her genuine love of–and exasperation with–Nathan with impressive presence and energy, delivering a strong rendition of “Adelaide’s Lament” especially. The supporting players are well-cast, as well, led by Mendoza and Gertner who make a fun comic team, and by beloved Muny regular Ken Page in a charming turn as Sarah’s kind, devoted grandfather and co-worker at the mission, Arvide Abernathy. There’s a vibrant, energetic ensemble as well, contributing to dazzling group numbers like “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” and “The Crapshooter’s Dance”, which also showcase the dynamic choreography of Lorin Latarro and Patrick O’Neill.

Technically, this production is wondrous, making the most of the new capabilities of the new and improved Muny stage. Paul Tate dePoo III’s stylish, colorful set shows off the neon boldness of old-school New York, aided by the excellent video design by Nathan W. Scheuer and lit up brightly by lighting designer Rob Denton. There are excellent, vividly styled period costumes by Tristan Raines, as well. There’s also a great Muny Orchestra and music direction by Brad Haak that bring Frank Loesser’s classic score to life with verve.

Guys and Dolls is a fun show. It’s big, bold, and full of energy, filling the Muny’s enormous stage with stylized characterizations and energetic singing and dancing. I’m not sure if the new stage really is bigger, but it seems that way, and it certainly looks newer, with some new aspects that add to its versatility. It’s a new stage for a new era, and Guys and Dolls is ushering that new era, and the Muny’s 101st season, with style.

Cast of Guys and Dolls
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Guys and Dolls in Forest Park until June 16, 2019

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