By John Dwyer
“For the people all said ‘Sit down!'” is one of the lyrics of this musical. But the audience wasn’t paying attention as it rose to its feet at the end of the show.
You may have seen “Guys and Dolls” before, but not with this excellent cast, and after all these years, it still uplifts with its fun story and luscious music. “Guys and Dolls” is musical comedy perfection and never gets tired. In the hands of director Louis Palena, who has made some excellent cast choices, you are transported to the magical land of Damon Runyon. Get your passport ready when you arrive at Music Mountain Theatre because the flight takes off as soon as the curtain goes up.
This classic begins with a choreographed scene that is not dance per se, but a cacophony of movement that mirrors the hustle and bustle of New York City’s Times Square. The music is led by horns and a honky tonk piano that is the equivalent to the heart beat of the greatest city in the world and its epicenter. And since I love my former hometown, it had me enthralled at the get-go with Act One, Scene One.
To those in the know, just saying “Damon Runyon” tells you everything, but if you are not familiar with that name, let me explain. He was one of the most highly read journalists of the 1930s. He reported on sports for the Hearst paper chain. He wrote at first about the baseball clubs, but he evolved and started reporting on fighters and the racetrack, along with the life of gamblers, promoters, fight managers, bookies, grifters, scam artists and lady entertainers. His reporting dovetailed with the gangster movies of the thirties. He wrote short stories, among which was a collection called “Guys and Dolls.”
In 1950, it was made into a musical that was described at its opening as not just a hit, but a masterpiece. The reviews were universally positive. Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times wrote: “We might as well admit that ‘Guys and Dolls’ is a work of art. It is spontaneous and has form, style, and spirit.” It was adapted to the stage by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, and directed then by part-time Bucks County native George S. Kaufman.
The story is about Nathan Detroit, who needs a G Note, which is $1000 if you’re a rube and not picking up what I’m laying down. And it’s so he can use the Biltmore Garage for a crap game. Nathan runs the “oldest, established permanent floating crap game in New York.” Since he doesn’t have the scratch, he makes a bet with legendary gambler and ladies’ man Sky Masterson: Sky must take a doll of Nathan’s choice to dinner in Havana. Sky agrees, and Nathan chooses the pretty, holy roller evangelist Miss Sarah Brown. The odds are favoring Detroit.
A secondary story line is Nathan Detroit’s 14-year engagement to his doll, Miss Adelaide, and Miss Adelaide’s lament that it is taking way too long to get to the altar.
Even in the seamier parts of The Big City, good girls fall in love with bad guys and, almost begrudgingly, they start to love them back. Lee Damon, as Sky Masterson, has an impressive voice. Libby Kane as Miss Sarah Brown has one of the purist, most lyrical sopranos that you could ever hear. But what clinches it for me is the sincerity of their performances.
Musicals are storytelling and I was mesmerized by Damon as he sang “Luck Be a Lady.” He had everything on the line dramatically, when he sings that song and he nails it. He is a locomotive as he winds up and shoots the dice. A great theater moment created by him, his cast, the choreography, staging and lighting.
The same can be said when Miss Sara Brown has one too many Cuba Libres in Cuba and gets frisky singing “If I Were a Bell.” Her transformation was subtle and just right. Still the good girl, but one that opened up just enough and was able to let her hair down for once. Kudos.
So good are they singing the Act One finale song “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” that the song has since taken up what seems permanent residency inside my head. That is what a good performance can do.
The comic balance to Sky and Sarah are Nathan and his very long date/fiancée of 14 years, Miss Adelaide. Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide are that special kind of quirky that you see only in a native New Yorker.
Patrick Lavery as Nathan and Jennie McNiven as Adelaide capture the special hard and soft characteristic of the quintessential Big City hustle. Nathan may be brash and as played by Lavery, a hyper ball of fire — think of Jimmy Cagney at 78 rpm. And yet, Lavery plays Nathan, with all those word, as virtually speechless when it comes to loving Miss Adelaide.
McNiven as Miss Adelaide is a girl who may do a strip at the Hot Box Club (“Take Back Your Mink”) where she is employed, but she is clothed in fact, and bundled up with inhibitions and insecurity. All of that, of course, is well documented in McNiven’s delightful rendition of “Adelaide’s Lament,” where a person could develop a cold due to anxiety, according to a book she’s reading.
Other noteworthy performances are David McLoughlan, Jr. as Nicely Nicely who sings the revival meeting barn burner of a song “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.” This was a role he was destined to play. McLoughlan’s happy-go-lucky, effervescent persona is real and is the exact fit for a very nice Nicely, Nicely. Sheldon Bruce Leff is the most memorable Big Jule that I have seen. He is imposing, both in presence and in manner. Four decades ago, I met an enforcer once named “Nicky the Blonde,” who I have not thought about in years — until this performance. For Leff to make me think of him is something. By the way, Nicky had dyed black hair and was around Zeff’s age. Kudos also to David Whiteman as the understanding father of Sarah Brown, and to another solid performance by Roger Madding as police officer Lieutenant Brannigan, and Erin Looney as General Matilda B. Cartwright.
Jordan Brennan did choreography and costumes. Do I need to say more? That, of course, means the choreography was great and the costumes, as always, miraculous. Visually, he creates a feast for the eyes with his costumes that are bold, bright and on the money.
“Guys and Dolls” is a sure bet due to its great story, songs that have become American pop standards, and rich characters. This production should be seen due to its fine acting and singing. And there also doesn’t seem a better time for an audience to hear about redemption. In a world where we talk past each other, here is a moment where sinners and holy rollers listened to each other.
“Guys and Dolls” — missing it would be a sin. Buy a ticket and be saved. Running through March 24.