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Theater Review: Guys and Dolls

Published December 21, 2005 at 12:53 p.m.

Love. It's the original cause for irrational exuberance, and the eternal battleground between the sexes. Chemistry or commitment? Passion or possession? Men and women often cross swords over what love means, providing limitless fodder for poets, artists and . . . Broadway song-and-dance men. Take the tangled topic of love, throw in catchy tunes, witty lyrics, clever plot twists and bountiful opportunities for high-kicking high jinks, and you get Guys and Dolls. It's the quintessence of American musical theater: a show with fun, froth and a knowing nod to the follies of the human heart.

In the 55 years since Guys and Dolls premiered, just about every theater floorboard in this country has felt the clicking heels of the Hot Box Girls and the rhythmic stomp of "The Crap-shooters' Dance." Most people who have "done" theater have found themselves involved in this musical at some point. Myself included.

I helped produce Guys and Dolls when I was a teacher in Brentwood, California. I was roped into it somewhat against my will; when it comes to extracurricular activities, private schools mine your resume for even tangential qualifications. At my previous school, I'd coached soccer and taught aerobics based on only brief participatory experience, in addition to helping with choirs and musicals.

So now I was Samuel Goldwyn? Actually, the director was a force of nature, and just needed a right-hand person to help her out. The school took its drama seriously; this production of Guys and Dolls was christening its new, multimillion-dollar theater, financed in part by friends of the school such as Aaron Spelling. The student body consisted largely of the children of industry movers and shakers. Some of the kids didn't necessarily take their academics too seriously. But acting, singing and dancing? That meant business.

Some of them prepared for auditions by hiring professional choreographers. Celebrity connections were taken for granted. I did some individual vocal coaching, especially with our shy but gifted Sky, unaware until deep into the show that he was screenwriter-director Larry Gelbart's grandson. Billy Crystal's daughter Jenny played Miss Adelaide; her mom Janice spent a long Sunday afternoon cutting out yards of pink satin for Hot Box costumes, sitting on a classroom floor with me wielding scissors and pins. When final tech work on the new theater was running behind schedule, Billy came to help hook up the soundboard.

But what I remember most fondly is how eager and hard working the kids turned out to be. Any ambition was tempered by openhearted enthusiasm. At 14 and 16, what did they really understand about the show's big themes? They just liked to sing, to dance, to perform. And they adored you for helping them follow their dreams.

Could any production live up to my own cherished memories? Is it possible to do anything fresh with such a frequently performed show? Northern Stage's answer is a resounding yes. Director Brooke Ciardelli and choreographer Josh Prince have put on a playful set of spurs and given the treasured warhorse a spirited kick. The result is a rollicking and effervescent romp.

The brilliant stroke of Guys and Dolls is setting two love stories against an improbable background: the seedy world of low-rent New York gamblers. The setting provides rich material for the overarching theme -- not to mention plenty of puns and Frank Loesser's metaphor-laden lyrics. Love is always a huge gamble. Horses and dice? Much safer bets.

Two couples take radically different paths to love's door. Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide could be the lead guests on a "Dr. Phil" episode: "Men Who Can't Commit and the Women Who Love Them." They are celebrating their 14th anniversary of being engaged. Adelaide has developed psychosomatic symptoms from Nathan's waffling. "Just from waiting around for that plain little band of gold, a person can develop a cold / Just from worrying whether the wedding is on or off, a person can develop a cough."

At least Nathan and Adelaide come from the same world. Nathan runs the "oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York," and Adelaide performs at the risque Hot Box nightclub. Sky Masterson and Sarah Brown, on the other hand, are from planets farther apart than Mars and Venus: He's a smooth, big-league gambler and she's a prim, Salvation Army missionary.

Sarah resists her attraction to Sky, because she has the man she's going to marry "all figured out." In the duet "I'll Know," she sings, "I've imagined every bit of him, from his strong moral fiber, to the wisdom in his head, to the homey aroma in his pipe." Sky scoffs: "You have wished yourself Scarsdale Galahad, a breakfast-eating Brooks Brothers type." His plan? "Mine I'll leave to chance and chemistry." But by the end of Act I, they find themselves awash in chemistry -- with each other.

As the plot twists and turns in Act II, the couples find themselves at loggerheads over another fundamental conflict: the desire to change your mate. An exasperated Sky asks Adelaide, "Why is it, when you women meet a man you like, you take him right in for alterations?" As the women ponder their options, they realize: "In any vegetable market, from Borneo to Nome, you mustn't squeeze the melon 'til you get the melon home." Translated into action, this means, "Marry the man today, and change his ways tomorrow." This ensures a happy ending, for the time being.

Everything about the Northern Stage production gleamed. Prince filled the dance numbers with fun-loving flourishes, such as macho gamblers who painfully regret ill-advised splits and the Cuban dancer who stashes a guidebook down the front of his pants. The cast reveled in the choreography's self-conscious silliness, throwing themselves into it with abandon.

Brian Prather's straightforward scenic design used painted rolling flats to maximize the onstage space for dancing. Moody, atmospheric lighting by Annmarie Duggan made liberal use of pinks and blues. Jessica Risser-Milne's costume design played with a vivid palette, from the bright scarlet of the Salvation Army uniforms to the egg-yolk yellow of the Hot Box Chicks' leotards for "A Bushel and a Peck." The tear-away, gunmetal-silver gowns for "Take Back Your Mink" were stunning.

As Nathan and Adelaide, Matthew Henerson and Jenn Taber delightfully embodied the "push-me, pull-you" nature of the couple's relationship. They were the strongest members of a top-notch cast. Henerson played Nathan like the Cowardly Lion on Red Bull -- with a little bluster, a lot of fluster and a dollop of amusing angst. His voice was hearty and expressive, while Taber sang with a rare combination of suppleness and spot-on comic timing. Her hilarious "Adelaide's Lament" was a show stopper.

Shanara Gabrielle and Edwin Cahill captured the breathtaking enchantment of Sarah and Sky's whirlwind courtship. Their singing was serviceably sweet, although lacking some of the flexible power of Taber and Henerson. Gabrielle's voice had an occasional edginess to it, Cahill's, a slight nasal quality. Nonetheless, they played their romance with convincing charm and danced strongly, especially in the innovative -- and tricky -- Cuban number.

It's hard to imagine Guys and Dolls will ever fall from the repertoire of high school, community and regional theaters. And periodically a Broadway revival -- such as the 1992 smash starring Peter Gallagher and Nathan Lane -- will arise and dwarf much of the dreck playing alongside it. Not just because the dialogue is delicious and the songs soar, but because the theme is so timeless. We all want love, but it seems the craziest, most improbable stroke of luck that we ever find the person we are supposed to be with. Guys and Dolls allows us to leave the theater tapping our toes and dreaming, "Maybe, just maybe . . ."

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Elisabeth Crean


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