Unlike Rob Marshall’s orgiastic success with the current film version of Chicago, Joseph Mankiewicz’s movie musical of Guys and Dolls was a blister on the genre’s reputation. “The Broadway version is legendary; the movie provides no clue as to why,” wrote the late film critic Pauline Kael. If you can think of Marlon Brando and Richard Gere in the same realm (and why can’t you?), contrast audiences’ surprised giddiness at Gere’s performance in Chicago with their bruising disdain for Brando’s in Guys and Dolls. All these years later, people say, “That’s right, I forgot. There was a Guys and Dolls movie.”
When Peter Altman, the Missouri Repertory Theatre’s artistic director, announced last year that he was staging Guys and Dolls, he defended the show by slyly referencing the wan movie and every amateurish high school drama department. He understood that people knew the musical because they’d seen their kids or nieces and nephews in it, not because they’d heard the original-cast album, featuring Robert Alda and Vivian Blaine, or seen the snazzy 1990s revival with Nathan Lane and Faith Prince. In other words, Altman said, the show deserved an encore.
For the most part, the Rep’s Guys and Dolls is what the musical was meant to be. It’s not the perfect show, as some attest, especially when the book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows drags scenes out to the breaking point. Nor is this the ultimate production. Daniel Pelzig’s choreography is repetitive (the men make running slides seemingly dozens of times), and when there is supposed to be synchronicity, a number of the dancers’ limbs are disinclined to move together. Bill Forrester’s sets are serviceable and functional but not at all original.
When it all comes together, though, as in the exhilarating “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” near the close of the show, it almost feels as if there’s never been a more impassioned blend of music, lyrics and delivery on the Rep’s stage. Thanks to Richard Ruiz’s excellent performance as Nicely-Nicely Johnson and a breathlessly energetic cast, the show becomes a blinding diamond in the rough.
Based on the writings of Damon Runyon, with witty, tongue-twisting lyrics and embraceable music by Frank Loesser, Guys and Dolls is about the New York underground when that term meant fairly harmless guys who would shoot craps and dolls who would bump and grind at sexy nightclubs like The Hot Box. Two of those, Nathan Detroit (Joel Blum) and Miss Adelaide (Tia Speros), have been engaged for fourteen years as the show opens; you’d call them commitment-phobic if they didn’t exhibit so much commitment to their sinful vocations. Cutting like a butter knife through this colorful world of petty crime is a small troupe from the Salvation Army, led by the paternal Arvide Abernathy (Gary Neal Johnson) and his proper granddaughter, Sarah Brown (Jane Bodle). Their mission to save souls sends shivers through the neon streets.
When the charismatic Sky Masterson (Matt Farnsworth) slips back into town, Detroit senses that Masterson is itching for a gamble and bets him a thousand smackers he can’t seduce Sarah. If it sounds like the lustful goings-on in Dangerous Liaisons, it’s not nearly that randy; yet Sky succeeds at whizzing Sarah to Havana for the day, where he gets her drunk. Her hangover leaves her feeling enamored with Masterson, who realizes that he, too, has been bitten by the love bug. Director David Ira Goldstein has Sarah’s follow-up song, “If I Were a Bell,” delivered as if she’s describing the effects of the alcohol rather than Sky’s charms, as it’s usually performed. It’s a sophomoric take on their date and it does the actress no favors.
Of the four leading actors, Blum and Speros are the most consistent, giving Nathan and Adelaide their surface sliminess and dizziness while hinting at the smarts (street and otherwise) they possess. Farnsworth is fairly bland for much of the first act (rather like a Ken doll in fancy duds) but seems omnipotent in the second, especially with “Luck Be a Lady.” Bodle is a tad less charming than perhaps Sarah should be. Gary Neal Johnson has a nice scene with the song, “More I Cannot Wish You,” and Vincent Onofrio Monachino (recently in Bat Boy) has mammoth stage presence as a Chicago transplant named Big Jule.
But Richard Ruiz may be the season’s best supporting actor in a musical. His Nicely-Nicely is a warmhearted stooge for much of the play, and then he raises the roof with “Sit Down” There’s certainly more pleasure in the show than this one performance, but Ruiz’s work is without parallel.
Postscript: A two-page ad placed by a group calling itself “Not In Our Name” appeared in the January 27 New York Times, imploring “the highest officers of the land” to temper the slide toward a “new openly imperial policy” with regard to Iraq. In essence, the group of artists, actors, writers and academics asks for a rallying together of those who “repudiate any inference that [war is] being waged in our name.”
The Kansas City actors who have since told me they support the sentiments include Phil Kinen, Melinda McCrary, Ron Megee, David Wayne Reed, Cathy and Dan Barnett, Jennifer Mays, Scott Cordes and Larry Greer. Locals who weighed in from the coasts or on the road were Randall Cohn, Becky Barta, John Rensenhouse and Don Richard.