Sunday, December 5, 2010

Faulkner: "Guys and Dolls"

Based on Damon Runyon's popular stories set in New York's world of gamblers and their women, the ever-popular 1950 Tony Award winning Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling, and Abe Burrows musical Guys and Dolls is currrently captivating sold out audiences at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre.

From its first appearance on Broadway, Guys and Dolls has rarely been absent from professional and amateur stages -- and with good reason. It contains some of musical theatre's most memorable songs ["Luck Be A Lady", "I've Never Been in Love Before", "Bushel and a Peck", "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat", and "Adelaide's Lament" among them]; and some of its most memorable characters in Sky Masterson & Sarah Brown, Nathan Detroit & Miss Adelaide, Nicely-Nicely Johnson, and Big Jule. Put these together with two untraditional love stories, Runyon's masterful mixture of street slang with formal speech patterns, and a tremendously sophisticated wit, and what emerges is a challenging show that reaches through time to remain as topical as when it was first written.

The combined efforts of director Angela Dickson and musical director Marilyn Swears have challenged their large ensemble cast to tell the story clearly and sing & dance their way through its complex moments with seeming ease. -- Favored with strong singing voices and some significant stage experience, the featured roles come across convincingly, especially as they have to manage the intentionally stilted Runyonesque dialogue.

Nathan Detroit [Chris Kelly] has his hands full: he is the organizer of "the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York", but needs $1000 to keep it going; at the same time, he has promised the featured entertainer at the "Hot Box" nightclub, Miss Adelaide [Bethany Telehany], that he is giving up gambling and intends to marry her after a 14-year relationship. She has been more than patient, and he consistently finds excuses for staying away from the altar.

While Sarah Brown [Kari Gatlin], a soldier in the "Save a Soul Mission", tries valiantly to recruit & save the local sinners, Nathan sees in her a quick fix to his money problem: he gets the high-rolling Sky Masterson [Michael Morrow] to agree to a bet -- that Sky can get Sarah to accompany him to Cuba for a fling. Sky is such a slick operator, that he convinces some at the mission that he is a repentant sinner, and promises Sarah that he will fill her evening salvation session with at least a dozen sinners. Once in Cuba, Sarah falls for Sky, and he falls for her as well, having second thoughts about cheating her and the mission.

Runyon's characters, despite their shortcomings [drink, gambling, etc.], are really pretty decent sorts, and though he accordingly presents his men and women with different sets of priorities -- men want their freedom, and women want the security of marriage and a home -- they come across as likeable even with their faults, and especially when each realizes that no one side is perfect.

The action comes at a quick pace, though scene changes need to be managed more quickly & efficiently, and many of the characterizations are absolutely delightful. As we watch the romantic relationships develop, we get thoroughly engaged in their lives, and root for them to resolve their differences.

Mr. Morrow and Ms. Gatlin convince us of their affection in "I've Never Been in Love Before", appearing to have real feelings for each other. Mr. Kelly's bumbling efforts at avoiding marriage are quite funny. He is matched with Ms. Telehany's sensitive [and hilariously funny] "Adelaide's Lament"; and in "Marry the Man Today" with Ms. Gatlin, Ms. Telehany demonstrates a real talent for the comedic musical stage: a standout.

Tony Davidson's rousing rendition of "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" nearly brings down the house; and Paul Blount's grandfatherly advice to Sarah in "More I Cannot Wish You" is the singular most touching moment in this production.

In a brilliant casting choice, Bill Nowell plays Big Jule -- the toughest, meanest, and biggest gangster of them all. Mr. Nowell's slight frame and diminutive stature are no hindrance to his depiction of Big Jule; he gets away with it brilliantly and dominates the stage as if he physically filled it up.

With the entire company of 34 actors performing together only a few times, the stage does get a bit crowded, but all in all the staging remains fluid, the action moves along, and we are swept away by the energy of the actors and the brilliance of the script and the music.