Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Guys and Dolls is a Must-See Classic
– by Lee Greene
One of the 11 plays the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) is presenting in repertory this season is the classical American musical, Guys and Dolls. I saw it at OSF’s Angus Bowmer Theater in Ashland on Sunday, April 19, 2015. I’ve been asked by numerous inquirers, both before, and after, seeing the OSF production, “is it any good?” So let me just cut to the bottom line, it’s good, but even better than good, it’s extraordinary – if you ask me (and THAT IS why they publish what I write!), this season’s OSF production of Guys and Dolls is a must-see theater experience for anyone who can find the opportunity to get to a performance.
Let’s start with the musical play itself (and the background material on which it’s based). New York Times Theater critic Frank Rich famously wrote in reviewing an earlier revival production of Guys and Dolls: “It’s hard to know which genius . . . to celebrate first . . . . Do we speak of Damon Runyon, who created the characters of Guys and Dolls in his stories and with them a whole new American language? Or of Frank Loesser, who in 1950 translated Runyon into songs with melodies by turns brash and melting and lyrics that are legend? . . . . whose musical setting of phrases like ‘I got the horse right here’ and ‘a person could develop a cold’ and ‘the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York’ are as much a part of our landscape as the Chrysler Building and Radio City Music Hall.” [The New York Times, April 15, 1992] Reviewing the original Broadway production which premiered on Nov. 24, 1950, New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson wrote: “. . . Guys and Dolls is a work of art. It is spontaneous and has form, style, and spirit.” [The New York Times, Nov. 25, 1950, p. 21] John Chapman of the Daily News wrote: “In all departments, Guys and Dolls is a perfect musical comedy.” The original Broadway production won 5 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Direction of a Musical, Best Choreography, Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical ( Robert Alda as Sky Masterson) and Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical (Isabel Bigley as Sister Sarah Brown). Subsequent productions of the musical have won four more Tony Awards, 7 Drama Desk Awards, 8 Laurence Olivier Awards and 3 Circle Theater Awards (the latter two Award conveyors for London productions).
The director of this season’s OSF production, Mary Zimmerman, was warned by a colleague, “Watch out! That show is booby trapped!” – which I would interpret as meaning, “This show is so good, you need to be extra careful not to screw it up.” Some subsequent productions have failed to successfully present the material and replicate the triumph of the original, most notably a 2009 Broadway revival, which opened to generally negative reviews [Review Summary for 2009 Guys and Dolls; New York Theater Guide. http://bit.ly/1F5MMYr] and about which the New York Post said: “How can something so zippy be so tedious?” [New York Post, March 2, 2009; http://bit.ly/1JlJijp] Ms. Zimmerman and this OSF production did not come anywhere close to falling into that booby trap.
This production of Guys and Dolls sparkles on many fronts. First there is the music. The music originally written by Frank Loesser is so good, it IS the stuff of legend: melodious, catchy, and addictive. But it was written and orchestrated for a large orchestra in a huge Broadway theater. There is no way that a more modest contemporary theater can employ such a large orchestra. OSF created a new orchestration (by Music Director Doug Peck) that utilizes an 8 piece orchestra and while honoring the original music, successfully integrates elements of many subsequent brilliant cover and jazz recordings of the musical’s songs, creating an improved jazzier version of the music (and I do mean IMPROVED). If you want more details on the new orchestration, there is an OSF video that addresses the subject, viewable online at https://youtu.be/mTsTDgjVEKI. While I’m touching on the music, there is one slight that I just have to remedy. The new orchestration includes some wonderful trumpet playing. The OSF Playbill credits another well known local trumpeter for playing in the Guys and Dolls orchestra, but at the performance I attended (and in the orchestration video referenced above), the trumpeter performing was SOU faculty trumpeter, Dan Kocurek, who deserves credit for some great licks.
Then there is the choreography. Some of the success of the original Broadway production and the more successful subsequent productions, is owed to the lively, eye-catching choreography (the original DID win a Tony Award for Best Choreography), especially the Runyonland dance sequence near the beginning of the show, the Havana piece in Act 1, the two Miss Adelaide and the Hot Box Girls dance numbers, the Crapshooters Ballet , and the reprise at the end of the show. All of those were choreographed superbly in the OSF production. It was lively, eye-catching dancing throughout, and NEVER any tedium.
Then there was the set, props and lighting. OSF shines in the technical theater arts and that showed in this production. The audience enters the theater to a dramatic, attention grabbing backdrop, which later appears different when backlit. When the backdrop rises, the stage initially appears to be dressed with a minimalist set. Don’t let that initial appearance fool you. The set is very cleverly constructed, with fly-ins, impossibly large rolling set pieces and props, and multiple re-configurations and moving pieces that are very effectively and creatively used. I don’t want to give away too much here and spoil any of the surprise and wonder for the audience viewing a performance with all of these clever elements unfolding. But I can’t resist clueing the audience to pay attention when it’s time for the trip to Havana. Kudos to the technical departments.
Last, but by no means least, is the acting, which was excellent all around. All four of the lead actors, Jeremy Peter Johnson as Sky Masterson, Kate Hurster as Sister Sarah Brown, Rodney Gardiner as Nathan Detroit, and Robin Goodrin Nordli as Miss Adelaide do fine jobs in portraying their famous Runyon characters. Miss Nordli truly stands out and gives an unforgettable performance as Miss Adelaide; she nearly steals the show in several scenes. If this were a Broadway production, she would be a shoo in for a Tony nomination.
Ms. Hurster gives a very believable portrayal of a transformation from a prissy evangelist to a tipsy maiden and her acting while singing “If I were a Bell” was both precious and memorable. The duets between Sky and Sarah, and between Miss Adelaide and Nathan are consistently well done – credit Music Director Peck for a great job. There are no shortage of additional actors giving memorable performances: Daniel T. Parker gives a terrific Nicely-Nicely Johnson (“Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat”), David Kelley is perfect pitch as Benny Southstreet, Tony DeBruno fills the bill well as Harry the Horse and Richard Elmore does a fine job with Big Jule, to single out just a few of this reliably fine cast.
Here is the OSF video Trailer for this season’s production of Guys and Dolls:
I’ve been asked more than a few times how this production compares to the 1955 film version, with Marlon Brando as Sky Masterson, Jean Simmons as Sister Sarah Brown, Frank Sinatra as Nathan Detroit and Vivian Blaine as Miss Adelaide. I don’t think they can really be compared; the film is a very different thing than the stage play. For the film they removed 5 of the songs from the stage play & wrote 3 new ones that aren’t in the play (e.g., one song was written specifically for Sinatra). They also changed the story in places. It’s like comparing apples and oranges; the play needs to be evaluated on its own terms, not compared to the film; if anything the play should be compared to other stage presentations. As the highly positive critical reviews of earlier productions discussed above reveal, the play itself is superlative – musical genius by Frank Loesser integrated with colorful characters and hopeful stories of transformation and connection drawn from Damon Runyon’s writings. This OSF production is one of the better stage presentations. If pressed on the point, I would say the cast here sings and dances better than Brando and acts better than Sinatra. Vivian Blaine, who got more laugh lines than anyone else, was a highlight of the original theatrical play as well as the film, but I personally think Ms. Nordli gives a better performance. Tell you what – go see the OSF production and then you tell me how it compares to the film.
Guys and Dolls will be running in repertory in OSF’s Angus Bowmer Theatre through November 1. OSF is also currently running five additional plays in repertoire with Guys and Dolls: Much Ado About Nothing, Fingersmith, and Secret Love In Peach Blossom Land also in the Angus Bowmer Theatre and Pericles and Long Day’s Journey Into Night in the Thomas Theatre. For tickets, call the OSF box office at 800-219-8161 or order online at http://bit.ly/1yqvboU.
All photos by OSF photographer Jenny Graham.
This review was originally published by the Jacksonville Review on April 20, 2015 at http://jacksonvillereview.com/oregon-shakespeare-festivals-guys-and-dolls-is-a-must-see-classic/