By Richard Ades
Guys & Dolls opened on Broadway in 1950 and subsequently won the Tony for best musical. I can only see that as a sign of how much society’s tastes have changed over the intervening decades.
Composer/lyricist Frank Loesser’s songs include the classic Luck Be a Lady and the infectious Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat. But they also include several unmemorable tunes and Sue Me, which combines a tender melody with the puzzling lyrics “So sue me, sue me, what can you do me?” Say what?
In short, Guys & Dolls is a mixed bag. And at 66 years of age, it’s a very dusty mixed bag. Adapted by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows from short stories by Damon Runyon, it’s set in a quaintly old-fashioned version of New York’s underworld (dubbed “Runyonland”) where all the women are “dolls” and all the men are gamblers with hearts of gold.
Faced with the thankless task of resuscitating this chestnut for Gallery Players, director Mark Mann starts off by filling the four leading roles with likable and talented performers:
• Todd Covert as Nathan Detroit, a perpetually struggling gambler
• Amy Silver Judd as Miss Adelaide, a night club singer and Nathan’s longtime fiancée
• Kristin Yarger as Sarah Brown, head of a Salvation Army-like mission that tries to reform local “sinners”
• Christopher Storer as Sky Masterson, a traveling gambler and confirmed bachelor
The two women offer particularly distinct portrayals, Judd’s Adelaide coming off as a good-natured floozy while Yarger’s Sarah is sincere and grounded. Of the two men, Covert’s Nathan is slightly nicer, but both he and Storer’s Sky strike us as basically decent sorts.
As I said, all four of the leads are likable—maybe to a fault. If their characters had a bit more edge to them, their romantic intrigues might seem less blandly sweet.
Making up for the lack of dramatic tension, all four performers sing well and often beautifully under Bryan Babcock’s musical direction. An eight-piece band provides the big-sounding and mostly tuneful accompaniment.
The plot centers on the illegal craps game Nathan is trying to set up for local and visiting gamblers. Short on the cash he needs to rent a space, he tricks Sky into betting he can lure the high-minded Sarah to accompany him to Havana. Sky leaps to the challenge by visiting Sarah’s mission and pretending he needs her help to repent from his evil ways.
Peripherally involved in the goings-on are Denae Sullivan as one of Sarah’s fellow missionaries; Ryan Kopycinski and Kent D. Stuckey as Nathan’s colleagues Nicely and Benny; Brad Barbin as police Lt. Brannigan; and Rick Cohen as Big Jule, a gat-packing gangster from Chicago.
Benny and various other gamblers are distinguished mainly by their colorful and era-appropriate suits, which were designed by Debbie Hamrick. The only one who gets a chance to stand out is Kopycinski’s Nicely, who helms the show’s most entertaining musical number, Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat.
Danielle Mann’s choreography is generally low-key except for a few acrobatic moves performed during the opening strains of Luck Be a Lady. Jon Baggs’s spare scenery is efficiently designed, keeping scene changes short.
Unfortunately, some of the scenes themselves tended to drag on opening night. A little tightening would help to keep things moving in between songs.
I’ve used terms such as “nice” and “likable” to describe the characters, and those are good descriptions of the production as a whole. If you’re in a mellow mood, that might be enough. But considering the show demands nearly three hours of your time, you may find yourself wishing for something more.
Gallery Players will present Guys & Dolls through March 13 at the Jewish Community Center, 1125 College Ave., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25 ($20 for JCC member), $23 for ages 60-plus ($18 for JCC members), $15 for students/children. 614-231-2731 or www.jccgalleryplayers.org.