North Coast Repertory Theatre’s Amazing Necromancy: Damon Runyon and Frank Loesser’s New Musical
Damon Runyon, America’s prolific short story writer of the last century, uniquely chronicled Broadway and New York’s criminal subculture between the two World Wars, but he rarely applied his ample abilities to writing for the stage. In 1935, with Howard Lindsay he wrote A Slight Case of Murder for Broadway, and four years after his demise in 1946, Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows confected the musical Guys and Dolls from two Runyon short stories “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” and “Blood Pressure.”Hollywood made some 20 motion pictures out of various Runyon stories, and many more found their way into radio and television. But as frequently as Guys and Dolls has been revived on Broadway, the theater is stuck with this solitary Runyon-Loesser vehicle. Contemporary playwright Mark Saltzman has come to the rescue with Another Roll of the Dice, a musical theater pastiche based on several Damon Runyon short stories. From these stories Saltzman wrote a workable book, interlacing a dozen extant Loesser songs (he died in 1969), although most of Loesser’s lyrics are set to music by other Great American songbook composers such as Hoagy Carmichael and Victor Young.
Saturday, July 13, North Coast Repertory Theatre staged the premiere of Another Roll of the Dice in a smart period production directed and choreographed by Larry Sousa. On opening night, his team of six versatile actors flashed across the stage nimbly incarnating some 30 different characters with apparent ease and amazingly deft definition. Runyon’s slender plots may owe more to Grand Guignol than to Shakespeare, but when it comes to elucidating strong characters, he is nonpareil.
Among the most winning characters, I would list Allison Spratt Pearce’s commanding impersonation of a Manhattan nightclub chanteuse named Georgia St. George; Darrick Penny’s slick, debonaire high-end jewel thief Ledge Dugan, and Sarah Errington’s resolute, implacable waitress Zelma. Pearce’s sassy, assertive account of “The Boys in the Backroom” and her passionate “Why Fight the Feeling?” amply displayed her vocal prowess and fleet choreography. While I am not tempted to abandon my devotion to Marlene Dietrich’s classic, sultry version of “The Boys in the Backroom,” Pearce made a smashing case for her upbeat take on the song.
In the adroitly directed “Why Fight the Feeling?” Pearce gives the nerdy Tobias Tweeney, a socially inept recent engineering graduate of Rutgers University—played to bumbling perfection by Elliot Lazar—his first dance lesson combined with a quick tutorial in the delicate art of seduction. In this Runyonesque episode, Tobias seeks out the aid of the chanteuse because he has learned that she is connected with Manhattan’s underworld, and he hopes Georgia will introduce him to them in order to learn their rough manners and pick up their argot.
You see, Tobias’ New Jersey girlfriend is bored with his square manners and unimpressed with his Rutgers degree, claiming that she prefers a dangerous, dashing member of the New York underworld. After a series of unlikely plot twists, Tobias meets the mafiosi, gets caught in a police raid and thrown in jail, where the tabloids name him Tobias “The Terrible.” Because this is a Runyon short story, he is released the very next day to New Jersey, where his former girlfriend reads the headlines about Tobias “The Terrible” just as he meets up with her. He spouts some of his new patois—he has learned to refer to women as dolls, gals, and Judy’s—applies some of the moves Georgia St. George taught him, and voila! She is smitten with the new Tobias “The Terrible.” End of episode. This, BTW, is one of the more complexly plotted acts in Another Roll of the Dice.
With modest assists from a dark wig and a baseball cap, Pearce neatly transforms into Hattie, the simple soul who roots daily for the Giants from the bleachers. Completely enamored with baseball, she falls for the team’s star hitter, Haystack Duggler, played with aptly creepy nonchalance by Jason Maddy. They marry, Hattie gets pregnant, and by the time she is nursing the newborn, Haystack is scoring home runs with other women when the Giants play out of town. They separate, and Hattie raises her son to be a baseball player. Fast forward two decades, and we find Pearce’s Hattie in the bleachers again, this time watching her son hit the long ones for the team in spring training. Wearing eyeglasses and standing less all than before, Hattie has regained the enthusiasm for life, i.e. baseball, of her youth. Curtain.
In another expertly fashioned 180-degree change of character, Errington sets aside her pert but practical Zelma the waitress uniform and persona for a luxurious blonde wig and silk dressing gown to become Valeria, the haughty, scheming debutante. In “Debutante Number One” (music by Victor Young), the trio of Errington, Lazar in drag as her dresser, and Maddy as her fey hair stylist wickedly harmonize Valerie’s plot to marry a stock broker to assuage her family’s current financial woes. This is a Runyon plot, so the stockbroker turns out to be Jabez Thursday, only recently a shady underworld bookmaker. Lance Carter none too gently applies 50 shades of smarm to this character, helping the audience see Runyon’s unsubtle equation of these two professions.
Keyboard wizard Cris O’Bryon led a sleek, polished four-piece band enhanced by sophisticated arrangements by Jack Lipson. With the antics on stage, it would have been easy to overlook their finesse, but these musicians gave a splendid account of the score.
Larry Sousa’s stylish direction wisely kept his actors’ elocution attuned to an appropriate Brooklyn honk and emphatic, flat delivery. He kept the pace brisk, which is a good thing, because at two hours and a quarter, this musical proved a hefty portion of Runyon nostalgia. Kudos to Elisa Benzoni’s spot-on period costumes: from Tobias’ perfectly awful fern green and gold argyle sweater, to Georgia St. George’s revealing, glittering emerald green gown, and Ledge Dugan’s severely tailored black ensemble. Valeria’s billowy silk dressing gown struck the right note, but the bright orange sport coat worn by one of the mob bosses was too carnivalesque. Their meeting did take place at the Waldorf Astoria!
To call Marty Burnett’s set design minimal would over praise it. The musical’s basic setting is an unpretentious deli, so he made due with various combinations of tables and chairs. When the action went elsewhere, the audience was left to its imagination.
Another Roll of the Dice entertains doggedly and takes its audience on a nostalgic reverie. It did not leave this critic hungry for more.
Presented by the North Coast Repertory Theatre “Another Roll of the Dice” opened on July 13, 2019, in the company’s home at 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach, CA, and runs through August 11, 2019. This review was based on the July 13 performance.
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