Monday, May 11, 2015

Goodspeed’s Guys and Dolls: Half a Loaf

Nancy Anderson as Miss Adelaide and Mark Price as Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls. (All photos by Cloe Poisson)

When I reviewed the Shaw Festival’s fine production of Guys and Dolls two years ago I observed that this 1950 Frank Loesser-Jo Swerling-Abe Burrows show is the rare musical in which act two is even better than act one. (Most musicals, even terrific ones, are saddled with second-act troubles.) That distinction is abundantly clear in the production currently playing at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut, where it opens the new season. For the first half, the Goodspeed Guys and Dolls – directed by Don Stephenson, with musical direction by Goodspeed veteran Michael O’Flaherty – is disappointing. The staging feels cramped, especially during the “Runyonland” opening. Tracy Christensen’s costumes are mix-and-match, with a lot of glaringly bad choices: the hot pants on the Hot Box Girls in the farmyard number “A Bushel and a Peck” don’t flatter their bodies, and what the hell is Benny Southstreet (Noah Plomgren) doing in a zoot suit? Much of the acting is overly broad, especially Mark Price’s as Nathan Detroit, and – in roles that are normally understated – John Jellison as Arvide Abernathy and Karen Murphy as General Cartwright, both on the Salvation Army side of the cast of characters. And O’Flaherty must be using the arrangements from the 1992 Broadway revival, which speed up the tempo (at least on some of the numbers). I thought that was a lousy idea then and I still think so. It seems doubtful that the audiences at the Goodspeed would get bored if “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” were played at the tempo Loesser envisioned. This is, after all, one of the great musical-theatre scores, and familiarity hasn’t worn it down.

Tony Roach and Manna Nichols in Guys and Dolls.
Not that act one doesn’t have its pleasures. The set, designed by Paul Tate dePoo III, isn’t gorgeous, but it handily solves the problems inherent in putting an old-fashioned Broadway musical into the small-scale Goodspeed house. Manna Nichols sings the role of Sarah Brown, the staunch Salvation Army lass who falls for a gambler, with both sweetness and dramatic clarity, and her duets with Tony Roach as Sky Masterson strengthen the musical’s romantic tones, even though Roach’s acting is a trifle stiff in his first few scenes. (He warms up by the time Sky brings Sarah home from Havana.) Carlos Lopez and Jerry Gallagher as the Mutt & Jeff team, Harry the Horse and the gigantic dumb lug Big Jule from Chicago, are quite funny. Best of all is Nancy Anderson’s Miss Adelaide, the nightclub entertainer who’s been waiting so long for Nathan to marry her (“I’m Miss Adelaide, the well-known fiancĂ©e” is the way she introduces herself to Sarah) that she’s had to resort to making up a whole family life for herself in letters to her mother. Anderson played the two secretaries in the Goodspeed’s memorable 2011 City of Angels, and while Adelaide is a more vaudevillian role, she manages to infuse it with an enhanced version of the melancholy with which she brushed her numbers in the earlier production. That’s truest in the second act, in her touching reprise of “Adelaide’s Lament.”

And then the whole show seems to get an injection of good vibes between the acts. After intermission we get an almost uninterrupted series of splendid numbers: the striptease “Take Back Your Mink” (which features Christensen’s most successful costumes), “Adelaide’s Second Lament,” Sky’s “Luck Be a Lady,” the Nathan-Adelaide duet “Sue Me” (even performed at breakneck speed, it’s a winner), “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” and “Marry the Man Today” by Adelaide and Sarah. Scott Cote as Nicely-Nicely Johnson comes into his own with “Sit Down,” not only singing it spiritedly but dancing it with light-footed grace. The choreographer, Alex Sanchez, has saved up all his best ideas for these second-act numbers (including “The Crapshooters’ Dance”). Though Anderson is still the show’s high spot, Cote, Nichols and Roach’s songs showcase their talents as well. And you leave the theatre feeling – as you should when you see Guys and Dolls – that there’s nothing quite as enlivening as a good musical.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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