Guys and Dolls is a niche musical brought so near to perfection in its original production that nobody has ever really tried to improve it.
Oklahoma!, West Side Story and A Chorus Line are shows that broke new ground and echo still, spreading variations. But what Fiddler on the Roof did for the European Jewish diaspora and The Music Man did for small-town American nostalgia, Guys and Dolls has done for the mid-century wise-guy era of our greatest metropolis. There’s nothing more to say and nobody really tries.
The Old Globe Theatre, in partnership with Florida’s Asolo Repertory Theatre, has delivered a punchy, buoyant revival of the classic at its best when nearest the original. Which is usually.
Based on the instantly distinctive writings of Damon Runyon, whose beat was the underside of Broadway, these are folk tales of hardy survivors whose hidden cores oozed sweet sentiment while their exteriors glittered with a veneer of elaborate greed and cynicism. This entirely fanciful world operated on strict rules of order and an idiosyncratic language of slang strictly in the present tense.
In a 1937 story called “Dream Street Rose,” Runyon described his cast of characters: “In this street you see burlesque dolls, and hoofers, and guys who write songs, and saxophone players, and newsboys, and newspaper scribes, and taxi drivers, and blind guys, and midgets, and blondes with Pomeranian pooches, or maybe French poodles, and guys with whiskers, and night-club entertainers, and I do not know what all else. And all of these characters are interesting to look at, and some of them are very interesting to talk to, although if you listen to several I know long enough, you may get the idea that they are somewhat daffy, especially the horse players. But personally I consider all horse players more or less daffy anyway. In fact, the way I look at it, if a guy is not daffy he will not be playing the horses.”
For a world that has survived Prohibition and a Depression, this is bliss. It is like we might discover today that the homeless are philosophical dreamers.
Runyon was wildly popular in his day but his medium was storytelling, by a never-identified, endlessly fascinated witness who considered himself low on the social hierarchy he was describing. The characters worked on the page but needed help out loud and in person. When movies were made of the stories, Runyon didn’t write them. Radio scripts succeeded but he was just the source. And that’s the marvel of Guys and Dolls.
Based loosely on a couple of Runyon stories, the plot of the show – one gambler bets he can win any girl, another must wed or walk away from his fiancé of 14 years – is just a shelf to display the characters. And it’s Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows who bring them alive.
The songs are irresistible. Just listen in the intermission rest-room line or on the walk back to the car. Loesser’s ballad “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” is smooth and romantic but supported by the urgent Broadway underbeat. “Fugue for Tinhorns” (“I’ve got the horse right here, his name is Paul Revere…”) is a masterpiece of montage. “The Oldest Established” could be a school fight song for the Vienna Choirboys. “Sue Me” is relationship recitative of operatic quality. And breathes there a soul not moved by “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat”?
Likewise, the dialogue, courtesy of Burrows, surprisingly in his Broadway debut. He knows how to dump contractions and stay in the present tense as if to the manner born. “Why is it that the minute you dolls get a guy you like, you take him right in for alterations?” Is something blue and white? “The Whitney colors,” acknowledges a horse-player. And my favorite, obviously a line from after Runyon’s death in 1946, “I hope you get stabbed by a Studebaker!” (The 1950 Studebaker car had a projectile point in the center of its grill. This was a widespread gag for a while.)
With all this tough/tender talent, Guys and Dolls just never was not going to work. George S. Kaufman, its legendary director who comes off a bad decade, decides it needs more work before opening. The producers gladly extend the tryout run. It is selling out every night wherever. And, when it finally opens on Broadway, the raves are unanimous. Really.
For the Globe, director/choreographer Josh Rhodes has wisely decided just to leave everything as is. Of course he has about half the forces to deploy but, given the quality of these singer-dancers and his own ingenuity, there’s no drop-off in focus or pace. The gamblers in the sewer are terrific, the street scenes work well and even the Havana nightclub interval makes dramatic sense. So, never mind the Studebakers and the Whitneys, just lay it out there.
His actors do well even if there is some odd casting. That distinctively does not apply to Matt Bauman, a nimble dancer with exactly the look and presence Runyon must have had in mind. Bauman is Benny Southstreet and he’s only slightly better than the other guys, including Todd Buonopane as his pal Nicely-Nicely Johnson. Neither Terence Archie and J. Bernard Callaway, as the gamblers Sky Masterson and Nathan Detroit, go much beneath the surface of these non-rogues but they both have the swagger and the quickness required.
Audrey Cardwell as the missionary doll sings rapturously but never finds a consistency in her character’s frustration. And Veronica J. Kuehn as the principal attraction of the Hot Box Revue must gradually win over an audience startled and stunned by her excessive overuse of a boop-dee-doop squeal more appropriate to an earlier era. Though Miss Kuehn has the technique down admirably, she and the director should resolve to toss out at least two-thirds of the overuse.
I was totally seduced by the work of Sinai Tabak, who not only arranged Loesser’s score for just nine pieces without a synthesizer or an electric guitar in the building but also presided personally in the pit as the sole pianist and busy conductor. This guy deserves any awards available. Think about it! No strings, two woodwinds, nothing electric…
My main disappointment is the scenery. The great Jo Mielziner set the highest of standards with his busy backdrop of Broadway lights inspired, I always thought, by the black and white films of the Busby Berkeley era. Lee Savage’s present unit, through efficient, has a hard-edged, computer-generated taste which grates on a show best seen through colored whimsy. And Brian C. Hemesath’s costumes are only okayish, fantasies unmoored to the colorful inspiration. Some of the shoes aren’t even polished. And that is not the color of a New York policeman’s uniform. (Brannigan shouldn’t even be in a uniform carrying a billyclub. He’s supposed to be a fairly honest mid-level vice cop in a world of flexible ethics. But, whatever. The sailors’ ties are also the wrong color.)
Why are such details worthy noting? Because so much of this show is so nearly right. It’s like a fairytale being told yet again. We kids know how it goes. Alter anything at your peril.
(Continues at the Old Globe Theatre 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Aug. 13, 2017.)