Guys and Dolls – Theatre Review: Arizona Broadway Theatre, Peoria

It’s worth reminding ourselves. In 1950, when Guys and Dolls first opened on Broadway with Sam Levene, it was an instant smash. Critics trumpeted its triumphs and houses were packed. Three years later when practically the same cast moved from New York to London, it was the same story; praise from the papers, packed houses, and a lengthy run. Since then, each subsequent revival has been a major success. In 1982 when a new, re-imagined production opened at London’s National Theatre, it was deemed a sensation and ran for four years. And in ‘92 when Broadway revived it yet again, this time with Nathan Lane headlining, history repeated itself.

Running now at Peoria’s Arizona Broadway Theatre until May 26 is a new, vibrant production of the Frank Loesser musical that underlines why Guys and Dolls works every time. The show doesn’t rely on special effects; there are no falling chandeliers, helicopter landings, or the spectacle of pyrotechnics. It’s that old fashioned style of working with a good book, great characters, high-energy choreography, and a memorable score that hits a bullseye with every song. Each number is so well crafted and perfectly realized, it fits the individual singing it and becomes a musical representation of a characterization in and of itself.

Of course, simply putting on a show where the material is first class doesn’t automatically guarantee a quality production. Because of its popularity for the past sixty-nine years, there have been plenty of low-grade presentations in community theatres, high-schools, and even regional professional theatres that have failed to make the musical sparkle; some covered previously by this column. But that’s not the case here.

For this Jim Christian directed production, ABT has assembled an outstanding cast that appears to be having as good a time on the stage as the audience is having watching them. There’s a comforting feeling that’s immediately evident the moment the show begins. From the energetic choreographed opening of the shady characters going about their shady business behind the backs of the cops in NYC’s Times Square to the conclusion of Fugue for Tinhorns where Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Mathew Mello), Benny Southstreet (Tyler Pirrung) and Rusty Charlie (Taylor Wright) sing of sure things at the racetrack. With voices that harmonize and soar, the tone is set for what you instinctively know is going to be a quality production. And there’s not a moment that follows that ever lets you down.

Those new to Guys and Dolls and seeing it for the first time – how you’re envied – should know that the setting is based on a series of short stories from Damon Runyan, a newspaperman who spun tales of gamblers, gangsters, street hustlers, and their dames who populated the Broadway area not long after the Prohibition era. The book was adapted by Abe Burrows, and though writer Jo Swerling is also listed, this is not his work. Swerling delivered a script that was deemed “inappropriate” and wasn’t used. Burrows was then hired. He wrote a new book. But Swerling’s contract stated that he was to get credit whether any of his material was used or not, which is why you see his name in the program as a co-writer.

The term ‘Runyonesque’ refers to the character – in addition to the above-mentioned tinhorns, there are also other colorful monikers such Harry the Horse (Christopher Cody Cooley), Sky Masterson (Sam Hartley), Big Jule (Bob Downing), and Nathan Detroit (John Cardenas) – while the term ‘Runyonese’ refers to the language. While other characters, such as the Save a Soul missionary Sarah Brown (Trisha Hart Ditsworth), the cop Lt. Brannigan (Olin Davidson) and nightclub singer Miss Adelaide (Caelan Creaser) talk in a more casual present-day vernacular, the guys of the street possess a unique style of present tense formal speech with invented slang and no contractions. It’s funny to hear and great to quote and has the unique ability to be understood even if you’ve never heard the terms before. In 2019, they probably all sound familiar.  In 1950, many of the terms were new. Guys are men; dolls, dames, and broads are women; ne’er do wells and those who welch on their markers are bums; shooters are the guys who play craps; bundle is the amount their betting, and lettuce is the currency they hold. And if a horse ‘can do,’ then it’s a sure thing.

Joseph C. Klug’s scenic design covering the Save a Soul Mission, a nightclub in Havana, the Hot Box nightclub, the sewers where the guys roll dice, and Broadway where most of the action takes place is all a series of painted crazy-house angles. While the backdrops are effective, there’s a definite glitz of Manhattan missing. While the show is described as a musical fable of Broadway, there’s nothing suggesting the sparkle of the Great White Way in its design, not even a sign that reads Times Square. You miss the flash of marquee lights, particularly in the finale when the company assembles for a reprise of the title song. Plus, this might be the first time seeing Lieutenant Brannigan portrayed wearing a cop’s uniform instead of being a plainclothes officer. It doesn’t necessarily spoil things, but it does seem curious.

If you know the ‘55 movie and you’ve wondered why certain songs were cut, including A Bushel and a Peck, the answer’s simple. Producer Samuel Goldwyn is on record of saying he didn’t like them, so they were gone. Fortunately, ABT has messed with nothing and kept the originals intact. Backed by the music direction of Mark 4Man and his accomplished eleven-piece orchestra who sound twice that size, the show soars the most when the voices sing. The ensemble songs, The Oldest Established, Guys and Dolls, and Luck Be A Lady lead by Sam Hartley are as perfectly realized as the solos, highlights being Caelan Creaser’s comical Adelaide’s Lament, Doug Botnick singing Arvide Abernathy’s gentle and lesser-known More I Cannot Give You, and both Trisha Hart Ditsworth’s solos, I Know and If I Were A Bell.

Then there’s the classic Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat with Matthew Mello’s Nicely-Nicely taking the helm and leading the ensemble. If ever a song needed an encore, and not just the chorus but the whole thing from beginning to end, with Christian’s staging and this cast with those voices, it’s this one.

Guys and Dolls continues at Arizona Broadway Theatre in Peoria until May

Pictures courtesy of Scott Samplin

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