"Guys and Dolls"
Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven
"Guys and Dolls"? Haven't we all seen this venerable musical a hundred times? But this time around, the revival at Long Wharf is fresh, innovative, pared-down, and thoroughly exciting. In fact, it can hardly be called a revival. It's as if we are seeing the time-honored show for the first time.
Not only is it not a revival, but it is a pocket-sized musical, with a five-member band and 13 actors cast in multiple roles. In this format, company numbers become intimate experiences rather than the traditionally huge spectacles. One has the sense of climbing into the heart of the musical.
Director Kim Rubinstein and set designer G. W. Mercier have conceived a minimalist set. Long Wharf's thrust stage becomes a triangular installation (which reminds one, if anything, of feminist artist Judy Chicago's "Dinner Party"). It is a three-sided platform which surrounds a pit, topped by matching overhead lighting. This set, which initially appears unrelated to "Guys and Dolls," ultimately works very nicely. Each scene comes to life (courtesy of the performers and the story itself) and segues smoothly into the next scene, with chairs and other props added as needed.
One hardly needs to comment on the brilliance of Frank Loesser's score. "Stand Up, You're Rocking the Boat," "I've Never Been in Love Before," "Take Back Your Minks," "If I Were a Bell" and "Luck Be a Lady Tonight" are among the numbers that echo incessantly in one's head long after one leaves the theater. Music and lyrics work together, interweaving flawlessly with Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows' book.
"Guys and Dolls" is all about Damon Runyon's roster of Broadway characters-the Mission doll, the Hot Box dancers, the gamblers. Sky Masterson, the master gambler makes a bet with Nathan Detroit (host of the only floating crap game in the Broadway area) that he can take Miss Sarah, the Mission lady, to Havana. It's all about gambling for high stakes-and about falling in love, with two love stories unfolding simultaneously. Sky and Sarah predictably connect and disconnect and connect again, while Nathan and his Adelaide, engaged for 13 years, totter on the edge of matrimony.
As to performances, the second banana characters make the stronger impression. Richard Ruiz steals the show as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, not only in his solo Gospel number, but in every scene in which he appears. He and Richard Vida, who plays Nicely's cohort Benny Southstreet, manage some wonderfully funny moments. Ned Eisenberg and Tia Speros are also fine as the embattled Nathan and his long-time fiancé Adelaide. Eisenberg plays Nathan as a sad little two-bit operator, and Speros is Adelaide to the core. Only Dannis Parlato's Sky and Crista Moore's Sarah (the lead characters) are somewhat disappointing. It is difficult to dismiss from mind the tall, dark, handsome Sky Mastersons of the past, and Parlato hardly fills the bill in that sense, although he gets the swagger and dramatic stances just right. And Moore as Sarah tends toward awkward posturing and facial grimaces. But both are in fine voice, and make much of their musical numbers. And both are swept along in the tight, fast-moving story. As for other failings, both footwork and choreography are uneven, with the big gambling scene falling flat but other moments succeeding brilliantly.
All told, Rubinstein and company are to be congratulated for turning an old, familiar Broadway musical into a new experience.
-- Irene Backalenick
Oct. 9, 2004