Whatever “Guys and Dolls” has been in the many incarnations that I’ve experienced it over the years, I would never have used the words “clinically depressed.” I would now. The dolls in this lavish but deeply flawed production are more the Neely O’Hara variety than Broadway at its best.
“Guys and Dolls” is about as close as one can get to a perfect show. Frank Loesser’s score is musical comedy genius — and an established part of the Great American Songbook. Jo Swerling’s and Abe Burrow’s book perfectly captures the patois and humor of the gaudy, bawdy, and tawdry stretch of New York called “Runyonland,” after Damon Runyon — whose wry observations of the seamier side of Gotham in the Great Depression form the basis for the characters like Nathan Detroit, Sky Masterson, Miss Adelaide, and Sarah Brown.
The stories of guys in eye-hurting suits always trying to make the next deal, the next buck, and the dolls they love and bicker with is a classic American tale. From church basements to Broadway, this show has always been bankable.
“Guys and Dolls” makes the Depression, well, depressing
It may be that director Des McAnuff just doesn’t get this show. He has his actors trying to play the roles more or less naturalistically, which is at odds with the cartoonish nature of the book. Particularly in the performance of Oliver Platt as Nathan, the desire to find a deep inner truth in the character deadens the flash, bravado, and abject terror of marriage that makes him so appealing. Platt never really catches fire, and, when he’s not delivering lines, seems to haunt the sidelines with a hangdog look. Yes, it’s hard to keep a floating crap game running, but Nathan has got to have flash.
Craig Bierko as Sky Masterson takes one of the sexiest male leads in musicals and makes him bland. Lauren Graham has no edge as Miss Adelaide, and Kate Jennings Grant as Sarah, the uptight girl from the Save-A-Soul Mission, seems to have anger issues bordering on the bipolar.
Technically, the performances are sloppy. Pitch problems plague each of the four leads, with Graham being the most egregious, unable to find the melody for “Sue Me” at the performance I saw, and Jennings warbling all around the final note of “If I Were a Bell,” until she finally found it, but slipped down almost half a tone.
Even Bierko, the most accomplished musician of the group, couldn’t manage to hit the notes in “My Kind of Day,” a beautiful bluesy verse that leads into “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” arguably one of the most stunning duets in all show music.
It’s not only the singing that misses. Jennings has trouble landing a basic slap — even facing upstage, using what the director Alan Schneider called “bargain basement technique.”
Graham lumbers her way through “A Bushel and a Peck” and “Take Back Your Mink,” as if choreographer Sergio Trujillo had to decorate around her. But Miss Adelaide is supposed to be the headliner. Instead Graham makes her seem like what Cole Porter would have called “the laziest girl in town.” She certainly invested almost nothing in “A Person Could Develop a Cold,” another usually can’t-miss number.
The secondary characters also lack spark, though there are some strong moments. Tituss Burgess is mostly forgettable as Nicely Nicely Johnson until “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat,” but even that classic, turned into a full-on gospel extravaganza, seems forced. We never get the sense that Nicely is making his “testimony” up as he goes along, only to finally get swept up in his own fantasy. That’s the comedy of that number and its charm; for all his technical proficiency, Burgess never really gives us the character.
If that’s not enough, Damon Runyon is a character. In an opening lifted more or less from “City of Angels,” we see Runyon starting to write his stories. It slows down the pace, as does the opening dance number that’s supposed to give us the atmosphere of New York. It’s gratuitous.
As written, this show launches at a high point with “Fugue for Tinhorns,” and doesn’t let up until the final reprise of “Guys and Dolls.” McAnuff doesn’t get this, and the book scenes fall flat.
To be fair, Trujillo does a fine job with the choreography, and the sewer ballet that leads into “Luck, Be a Lady” is the only exciting part of the show. He’s got some of the best male dancers on Broadway working for him, and they’re working their hearts out.
There’s been no stinting on the money spent on this show. The period costumes by Paul Tazewell are excellent. Robert Brill’s set is a riot of girders and oversized signs and neon that are stunning, but the projections by Dustin O’Neill reminded me of “The Woman in White,” and often gave me motion sickness.
Nothing, though, put the nail in this for me as much as Bruce Coughlin’s new orchestrations. Darker, more muted, and with a heavier emphasis on low brass, it’s a rich sound, but like so much else in this production, it is heavy and overdone and drags the evening down — by the fancy tie around its throat, as Nicely puts it.
You would think that given the current state of the economy and a desire to escape reality for a couple of hours probably all-too-common today — movie grosses are way up — a revival of “Guys and Dolls” would be just the tonic theatergoers need. Sadly, this roll of the dice comes up snake eyes.
GUYS AND DOLLS
208 W. 41st St.
Tue. at 7 p.m.;
Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.;
Wed. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m.