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picture - Guys and DollsTheater Review

by Harvey Perr

published March 13, 2009


Guys and Dolls

now playing on Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre


Since Guys and Dolls and Pal Joey are in my personal pantheon of great American musicals, the saddest events of the season were the revivals of these two musicals. Maybe Pal Joey hasn’t been revived enough. And maybe Guys and Dolls has been revived too much. You have to know when to bring that special wine out. That’s what makes it special. I’ll get rid of Pal Joey first: it had some good things, like Stockard Channing and Martha Plimpton and that great score, but what were they imagining when they went ahead without a Joey? And though the Joey they had showed, in the first few minutes, that he could dance, why did the choreographer never ask him to try it again? And what the show really lacked was confidence. Which is why I say that perhaps it hasn’t been revived enough. On the other hand, Guys and Dolls had loads of confidence. Too much confidence. In the case of Guys and Dolls, everyone assumed that you didn’t have to do too much. It always works, doesn’t it? No. It doesn’t. You’ve got to put up there on the stage a lot more than half the neon lights in New York City! You know what I mean? And when it’s been done really well twice, well, if you don’t top what’s gone before, you at least have to match it, right? Take my word for it. Right!


picture - Guys and DollsWhere does it go wrong? Why does it go wrong? I mean, with Frank Loesser’s score – probably the best score ever written for a musical - or at least up there with Kiss Me Kate and Gypsy and Company and, well, Pal Joey – all you have to do is sing the songs. I think, though, what people forget is that, in the theater, it’s the people. I mean, if you haven’t got people up there you like, maybe even love a little, what’s the difference what they’re singing? Let’s start with Oliver Platt. We know he’s a good actor, at times even a great actor. But there he is and he’s Oliver Platt, not Nathan Detroit. He doesn’t need a voice to be Nathan Detroit. But he needs to be in shape. Nathan’s a guy who likes to look good. He’s got a reputation to uphold. The suits may be loud, but hey, this is Damon Runyon country, and Runyon knew a thing or two about the guys he was writing about and he knew the one thing about Nathan is that he looks good, damn it. He’s natty. He’s not a schlub. He doesn’t walk around like Gomez Addams in a fat suit. What does Adelaide see in this guy? Why has she been waiting 14 years for the guy? Just to change him? That’s what she says, but it’s not what she means.


So, no wonder, when Lauren Graham, who plays Adelaide, sings her famous lament, she doesn’t have her heart in it. If you don’t fall head over heels in love with the dame who’s got a bad bad cold because her man won’t marry her, something’s wrong and what’s wrong is that you just have a feeling this Adelaide isn’t all that gone on this Nathan. In the second act, when Nathan isn’t around as much, Lauren relaxes, you know, and she’s pretty funny,  and she does with “Take Back Your Mink” what she should have done with “Adelaide’s Lament,” and the audience warms up to her. You can feel it. But with Adelaide, you got to warm up to her right away, or else it’s all uphill.


picture - Guys and DollsOkay, next. Craig Bierko. A swell Sky Masterson. Nice. You like him. He can sing. Not too much danger lurking there, though. Once again: you like Sky, especially if you’re Sarah Brown, that upstanding Salvation Army lass, because there’s something about him you’re afraid to like. If you’re Sarah Brown and you don’t stop the show - when she finally gives into the danger that’s lurking behind the Sky Masterson grin - singing “If I Were A Bell,” then you go back to the chorus for a season or two. Kate Jennings Grant is a pro, you can hear it when lets go with the pipes on a song like “I’ll Know,” but, where it counts, singing “If I Were A Bell,’ she’s no Sarah Brown.


Then there’s Benny Southstreet and Nicely-Nicely Johnson. Steve Rosen is pure pastrami as Benny, but – and I say this even though Titus Burgess is African-American – Titus Burgess is white bread on which Rosen’s pastrami just doesn’t go. It isn’t until Burgess, with some tremendous help from Mary Testa, turns “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” into a rousing gospel number that you realize why he got hired in the first place.  But Nicely-Nicely isn’t just one number. We should have our money on him long before he sits down and rocks the boat.


picture - Guys and DollsAnd say you have a great idea. Let’s frame the show with Damon Runyon writing what we know as Guys and Dolls, a musical fable of Broadway. And you fill the stage with dancers running here and there with flashes of neon all over the place and digital projections of Noo Yawk City to boot. Well, when a song like “Fugue for Tinhorns” starts a show and starts it with absolutely the perfect tone, musically and comically, you cut your fancy idea and go straight to where Guys and Dolls always starts, because someone a long time ago knew that it was the right place to start. “Fugue for Tinhorns” is pure Runyon; we don’t need a fake Runyon at a typewriter, surrounded by a lot of noise. It just takes too long. Long enough to get the idea that this Guys and Dolls isn’t exactly working the way it should.


To tell the truth, it’s the first act that’s the downer. Things do pick up in the second act.  Among the other things that don’t work in the first act is a throw-away version of “A Bushel and a Peck,” which gives you a hint as to why, despite its being a big juke box hit at the time, it was scrapped for the film version. And “The Oldest Established” is done in such perfunctory style that I wasn’t sure it was done at all. If anything was working at all, it’s because the songs Loesser wrote are so good you can close your eyes and still enjoy them.


picture - Guys and DollsBut as I said, Lauren Graham comes across as pretty swell as things move along and “Sit Down” rocks the boat, and the great John Selya has a nifty dance solo in the crap game sequence. And Jim Ortlieb takes a shot at “More I Cannot Wish You” and it’s pretty haunting stuff.


So, no, a totally terrible Guys and Dolls is pretty near impossible. It’s just that it deserves better. And we deserve better.


harveyperr @


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