Bright, peppy, and fresh, the Public’s production of Guys and Dolls delivers just about everything one could desire from a classic American musical.
For those who’ve never seen it before: the play’s story is set in 1950, and centers on the Runyon-esque gambling denizens of Times Square. Nathan Detroit (Joel Hurt Jones), organizer of the “oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York,” needs to raise cash quickly in order to find a safe spot for the game. He bets his friend Sky Masterson (Charlie Brady) a thousand dollars that Sky won’t be able to take the prim, puritanical Save-A-Soul missionary Sarah Brown (Kimberly Doreen Burns) to Havana, Cuba on a date. Complications spin off from there: Sky wins the bet, but the seemingly mismatched couple ends up falling in love. In the meantime, Nathan’s girlfriend Adelaide (Kirsten Wyatt) pressures him to end the purgatory of their fourteen-year engagement by finally tying the knot. The double love story resolves itself exactly as you’d expect from a musical comedy, with both men safely converted from cads into respectable members of society through the institution of marriage.
I’ll admit, I’ve always had something of a soft spot for this musical: as a teen, I was in a (probably quite wretched) junior high school production, so it’s kind of theatrical comfort food for me, and may explain why I’m willing to bracket out its rather off-puttingly retro gender politics and go along for the ride. With the Public’s production, that’s actually less of a challenge than it otherwise might be, as Ted Pappas seems to have directed his cast to bring a modern sensibility to their interpretation of the lyrics, inflecting songs like “Guys and Dolls,” “Adelaide’s Lament,” and “Marry the Man Today” with enough ironic detachment that the musical avoids slipping into sentimental nostalgia.
The cast is strong: Burns and Brady solidly anchor the play’s love story, and Quinn Patrick Shannon, Gavan Pamer, and Joe Jackson are crisp and colorful as the gamblers Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Benny Southstreet, and Rusty Charlie. There is excellent character differentiation among the rest of the small ensemble, as well – from the surprisingly menacing Big Jule (Jerry Gallagher) through the motley ensemble of gamblers and Hot Box dancers and Save-a-Soul missionaries right down to the overzealous Lt. Brannigan (Tony Bingham). But the comic center of this production is the standout Kirsten Wyatt, as the long-suffering and sardonically self-aware Adelaide. Her vocal variation in “Adelaide’s Lament” – the song in which she discovers that “waiting around for that plain little band of gold / a person can develop a cold” – takes the lyrics to a whole new comic dimension, and her timing is impeccable.
Costumes, by Martha Bromelmeier, are eye-poppingly vibrant against Michael Schweikardt’s muted evocation of a pre-Disneyfied Times Square. The scenes shift fluidly between the street, the interior of the mission, the Hot Box club where Adelaide performs, and – in a nice bit of theatrical sleight of hand – the sewer where the gamblers are forced to hold their game. F. Wade Russo conducts a terrific orchestra cleverly tucked under the entrance to a subway stop downstage center, around which much of the action is staged. One could wish for more (and more vibrant) choreography in this production: for a musical, it’s often rather static, and many of the numbers – in particular, “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” which should be a showstopper – seem under-choreographed. But this production of Guys and Dolls is a spirited one nonetheless – a fun, toe-tapping, energetic romp for these dreary February days.