Those lovable cardsharks, bone-shakers, horserace touts and their dames are back again, filling the fictional streets of New York City with their tortured syntax and great songs, in Guys and Dolls.
This co-production by Great Lakes Theater and Playhouse Square gets plenty of things right—including a couple juicy performances and some ensemble dance scenes that jolt the Hanna stage to life. But a surprising vacuum that develops around a couple of the main characters makes this theatrical hand less than a royal flush.
More than 60 years old, G&D is a classic Broadway treat with a bulletproof book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, and legendary music and lyrics by Frank Loesser. Those creators were playing with a deck stacked with aces: the Damon Runyon-inspired characters who disdain contractions in their mashed-up lingo of real slang and made-up palaver.
Nathan Detroit and Sky Masterson are two inveterate gamblers always looking to score a sure thing while dancing away from romantic commitments. Nathan is trying to pacify his long-suffering and psychosomatically-sniffling fiancé Adelaide (engaged for 14 years), while keeping his floating cap game bobbing along without her knowledge.
Meanwhile, Sky spies an uptight Salvation Army gal, Sarah Brown, and arranges a bet with Nathan. Sky claims he can get stiff Sarah to jaunt with him to Havana (promising Sarah that he'll fill her failing mission with lowlifes if she goes away with him). Sinner-starved Sarah falls for the pitch and is thus whisked off to pre-Castro Cuba and introduced to demon rum, not to mention her sadly neglected libido.
These are, of course, cartoon characters—even though they have lots of heart and soul. And the one actor who gets that vibe right is Kirsten Wyatt as Adelaide. Chewing the scenery into a fine paste, Wyatt squeaks and squeals with delight and rage as she tries to corral the ever-elusive Nathan. And her signature songs, "Adelaide's Lament" and "A Bushel and a Peck," are thoroughly delightful.
Also excellent is Leah Horowitz as Sarah Brown, turning her character's alcoholic meltdown into a hilarious, limbs akimbo event. Her loopy rendition of "If I Were a Bell" brings out all the fun of Loesser's foray into the subjunctive mood. Even though her Sarah sobers up when back in Manhattan, Horowitz keeps the charm percolating under the surface.
While Harry Bouvy crafts a properly sleazy sort of Nathan, this should be a fellow the audience can warm to, especially in the back-and-forth musical argument with Adelaide titled "Sue Me." But Bouvy never lets us get close to Nathan's rampant vulnerabilities, keeping the audience at arm's length.
As for Sky, the talented Steel Burkhardt (he starred brilliantly in the touring company of Hair) seems oddly detached, never exuding the animal magnetism that melts the will of professional prude Sarah. Burkhardt sings well but we never feel the love he supposedly develops. And in the tune "Luck Be a Lady," the well-known lead-up to his climactic roll of the dice feels more perfunctory than a desperate play for happiness.
The strong company shines in some smaller roles. Wayne W. Pretlow is frequently funny as portly Nicely-Nicely Johnson, bringing down the house with his rendition of "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat." And Lenne Snively as the Salvation Army General does a nice turnabout in that song, morphing from rigid hardass to born-again gospel mama.
Director and choreographer Dan Knechtges keeps the pace sparking right along and many of his dance numbers, such as the hip-shaking interlude in Cuba, are a blast. But some scenes feel over-blocked, even in a show that makes no pretense of naturalism.
This is a handsome production, featuring Beowulf Boritt's animated sets and Jennifer Caprio's candy-colored costumes. It's a classic American musical material, and an odds-on favorite to keep you smiling like somebody who bet the house on Orb at last Saturday's Kentucky Derby.