Gamblers take a chance on romance in Loesser musical

Playing gamblers in Guys & Dolls are (from left): Bradley Davis Barbin, Kent Stuckey (Benny Southstreet), Todd Covert (Nathan Detroit), Derryck Menard and Ryan Kopycinski (Nicely Nicely) (photo by Jared Saltman)
Admiring a wad of cash in Guys & Dolls are (from left): Bradley Davis Barbin, Kent Stuckey, Todd Covert, Derryck Menard and Ryan Kopycinski (photo by Jared Saltman)

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.

Nathan Detroit (Todd Covert) and his longtime fiancee Miss Adelaide (Amy Silver Judd) in the Gallery Players production of Guys & Dolls (photo by Jared Saltman)
Nathan Detroit (Todd Covert) has an uncomfortable moment with his longtime fiancee, Miss Adelaide (Amy Silver Judd) in the Gallery Players production of Guys & Dolls (photo by Jared Saltman)

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.

Advertisements

What’s a nice Jewish girl like you doing in a Christmas pageant like this?

Rose Clubok (right) as Shirley and Georgia Fried as her best friend, Evie, in the Gallery Players production of Coney Island Christmas (photo by Rebecca Barger-Amato)
Rose Clubok (right) as Shirley and Georgia Fried as her best friend, Evie, in the Gallery Players production of Coney Island Christmas (photo by Rebecca Barger-Amato)

By Richard Ades

I always wondered how Sandy Cohen felt about playing the Virgin Mary.

Sandy was one of the two Jewish girls who were in my class in elementary school. She played Mary in our annual Christmas pageant, this being back in the days when most people thought it was perfectly normal to hold a religious drama in a public school.

Then again, most people weren’t Jewish. I assume Sandy wanted to play the plum part or she wouldn’t have tried out for it, but how did she feel about our school hosting this seasonal Christian event while ignoring Hanukkah? For that matter, how did her parents feel?

Such questions occurred to me after seeing Gallery Players’ charming production of Coney Island Christmas. Written by Donald Margulies (The Loman Family Picnic), it’s about a Jewish girl who lands an even bigger role in her own school’s Christmas pageant: Jesus Christ.

Cursed with an obnoxiously loud voice and low self-esteem, Shirley Abromowitz (Rose Clubok) is thrilled when drama teacher Mr. Hilton (Rick Cohen) asks her to play the adult Jesus, who serves as the pageant’s narrator. Her supportive father (Brian A. Belair) also is thrilled for her, but her mother (Kate Willis), not so much. An immigrant who came to America to escape anti-Semitism, she sees the play as yet another form of persecution.

The family dispute develops in Brooklyn in the 1940s and is presented in the form of a memory that the adult Shirley (Laurie Alexander) relates to her young granddaughter, Clara (Nora Butter).

Nora Butter (left) as Clara, Laurie Alexander as adult Shirley and Rose Clubok as young Shirley (photo by Jared Saltman)
Nora Butter (left) as Clara, Laurie Alexander as adult Shirley and Rose Clubok as young Shirley (photo by Jared Saltman)

Co-directors April Olt and Sonda Staley make good use of the Jewish Community Center’s big stage, allowing the story to hop from place to place, and from the present to the past, without skipping a beat. More importantly, they make good use of their large cast, particularly its younger members.

Rose Clubok’s Shirley seldom sounds as loud as she’s described, but she’s a lovable and compelling heroine. Other youngsters give unforced performances as her fellow students, which makes it all the funnier when they overact their way through Mr. Hilton’s Thanksgiving and Christmas productions.

The adult cast members—including Laura Crone as music teacher Mrs. Glace—are equally on target. Mr. and Mrs. Abromowitz’s squabbling scenes do tend to drag a bit, but the eventual emotional payoff is worth the wait.

Alexander holds it all together as the adult Shirley, who both narrates and plays a supporting role in the extended flashback to her childhood. As the granddaughter to whom she tells the tale—a role that mostly consists of observing quietly—Nora Butter displays poise and confidence.

Jon Baggs’s scenery, Debbie Hamrick’s costumes and Jarod Wilson’s sound and lighting design are all unobtrusively effective.

My only real quibble with Margulies’s comedy is that it could be more sympathetic to Mrs. Abromowitz. She comes across as an unfeeling parent when she tries to keep Shirley out of the Christmas pageant, but she really is right that the school shouldn’t be favoring one religion over another.

As a memory play, though, Coney Island Christmas captures the spirit of a time when few questioned this lack of division between church and state. It also celebrates children like Shirley who were strong enough to survive the era with their identities intact.

Gallery Players will present Coney Island Christmas through Dec. 20 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: 1 hour, 25 minutes. Tickets are $20 ($15 for JCC member), $18 for ages 60-plus ($13 for JCC members), $10 students/children. 614-231-2731 or www.jccgalleryplayers.org.

Past, politics put a damper on family gathering

By Richard Ades

Other Desert Cities may be one of those plays that you either love or you hate.

A New York Times critic praised the family drama when it opened at Lincoln Center and subsequently moved to Broadway in 2011. But some viewers who responded to his opinions clearly hated the play, even going so far as to leave at intermission.

After seeing Gallery Players’ production, I can understand where they’re coming from. Jon Robin Baitz’s work starts with at least two strikes against it.

First, there are the characters of Lyman and Polly Wyeth, a secular Jewish couple living in Palm Springs. Lyman is a former movie star who became an ambassador during the Reagan administration, and both he and his wife have immersed themselves in right-wing politics. Trouble is, they’ve immersed themselves so totally that, when faced with a painful dilemma involving their grown children, they respond with conservative talking points. Polly, in particular, is little more than a living, breathing cliché.

Add to that Baitz’s tendency to have his characters “communicate” by making long-winded speeches at each other. In the current production, at least, that adds up to uncomfortable moments during which everyone else is reduced to standing or sitting around in stiff silence.

Faced with the play’s shortcomings, director April Olt and her cast have a tough theatrical row to hoe. Despite this, a couple of the performances do manage to bear dramatic fruit.

Jill Taylor is intense and believably agitated as Brooke Wyeth, an author who’s struggling to recover from a seven-year bout with depression. Brooke is visiting her parents on Christmas Eve, 2004, with manuscripts of her new tell-all book about Henry, a brother who apparently committed suicide after being involved in a leftist-inspired bombing. She wants her parents to approve the book even though it basically blames them for Henry’s death.

Even more energy is provided by Jay Rittberger as Brooke’s surviving brother, Trip. The producer of a TV reality show, Trip finds himself in the middle of the resulting battle between his parents and sister. Thanks to Rittberger’s hyper and earnest performance, his response results in some of the production’s most compelling moments.

Tom Holliday and Catherine Cryan have less success as parents Lyman and Polly. Cryan doesn’t seem monstrous enough to say some of the horrible things that come out of Polly’s mouth, while Holliday delivers his lines as if ex-actor Lyman were simply playing one of his old Hollywood roles. And neither Holliday nor Cryan manages to inspire much sympathy, an admittedly hard task but one that is probably necessary in order to keep viewers involved.

Similarly unconvincing is Cheryl Jacobs as Polly’s sister Silda. Jacobs doesn’t convey enough edge or bitterness as the alcoholic ex-screenwriter, who plays a continually developing role in the battle of wills between Brooke and her parents.

In general, what’s missing from the production is a sense of the connections and tensions that would help the characters rise above their often cliché-ridden and wordy dialogue. At least Jon Baggs’s handsome set gives viewers something to look at while they endure all the speechifying.

Baitz does look at interesting questions in Other Desert Cities, such as whether an author has the right to use her own life as subject matter regardless of its impact on those around her. He also rewards viewers’ patience with some startling revelations.

But his play presents many obstacles to both actors and viewers, and the current production hasn’t been able to overcome them.

Gallery Players will present Other Desert Cities through May 18 at the Jewish Community Center, 1125 College Ave. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20 ($15 JCC members), $18 for seniors ($13 JCC members), $10 for students and children. 614-231-2731 or www.jccgalleryplayers.org.