Gangsters. Gamblers. Hustlers. Missionaries. The underbelly of New York City mixes with the religiously devout in Frank Loesser, Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling’s most hailed musical comedy, “Guys and Dolls.”
Originally based on a pair of short stories by Damon Runyon, the 1950 musical won a Tony, almost was awarded a Pulitzer (it was vetoed because the House Un-American Activities Committee accused Burrows of Communist associations), and its score ended up in the GRAMMY Hall of Fame in 1998. Many likely remember “Guys and Dolls” from its 1955 big-screen adaptation, in which Marlon Brando belted “Luck Be a Lady.”
Thalian Association will open its season with the show at UNCW’s Kenan Auditorium this week. The group is moving from its normal downtown venue, Thalian Hall, as the 500-seat theatre was scheduled for renovations. Though the remodeling has been postponed, Thalian Association is sticking it out at Kenan, a venue that seats upward of 1,000. “Kenan is beautiful and the staff have been so helpful,” artistic director Chandler Davis says.
Unlike previous seasons, however, the audience will only have one weekend to catch the show. “Guys and Dolls” will run for four productions, including a Thursday-night opening. Thalian Association’s next show, “Aida”—a local debut with score by Elton John and Tim Rice—also will take place one weekend only (April 2-5). “The rest of our shows are running the regular amount of performances,” Davis says.
It will be Mike Thompson’s first time directing “Guys and Dolls.” It has been on his bucket list since he brought to life gambler Benny Southstreet 20 years ago in his hometown community theatre. “The show is just great, from the songs to the comedy—it really is the perfect musical comedy as it has been called,” Thompson says.
Nathan Detroit will be played by Jon Wallin. Wallin drives the action of the script as a broker who makes a bet with gambler Sky Masterson.
“There is an energy and drive in the character to hold onto to his identity that is absolutely exhilarating to try and maintain during the course of the show,” Wallin says.
Playing his fiancée, Adelaide, is Katie Villecco. Wallin praises her help in maintaining balance. “She is absolutely magnificent to work with,” he says. “Every time we perform ‘Sue Me,’ our back-and-forth energy gives the number a unique and very satisfying quality.”
Villecco takes on Adelaide with playful passion and persistence. After all, she’s only been waiting 14 years to marry Nathan. While being in the show is fulfilling one of Villecco’s acting goals, she has found real joy from being around the creatives putting it together. “The talent involved is amazing!” she says.
Brenton Schraff plays gambler Sky Masterson, who Nathan bets can’t win the heart of righteous missionary Sarah Brown, played by Samantha Ray Mifsud. In exchange for his help to gain more devout followers, Sarah agrees to the date.
“Sarah is steadfast in her faith,” Mifsud tells. “I love this about her! I find her authenticity admirable . . . she allows love to be the catalyst that opens her mind to some novelty, while still living according to her morals, sticking to what she knows to be her truth.”
Though Thompson calls the characters caricatures in how over-the-top they’re written, he says they’re relatable nonetheless. Mostly, they focus on love, and with comedy steering the show, it has winning momentum.
“I think the old adage ‘you love who you love’ is what drives the show,” Thompson explains. “Whether it’s Adelaide’s love for Nathan or Nathan’s love of gambling or Sarah and Sky falling for each other, despite being from two different worlds.”
Mifsud’s favorite song, “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” explains the magic of falling for someone. She loves the lyrics: “This is wine that’s all too strange and strong/I’m full of foolish song and out my song must pour.” “It’s just a beautiful metaphor to help describe that sublime state,” Mifsud relays.
The story, music and choreography come together seamlessly, led by the staging execution of Tammy Sue Daniels. It’s her first time taking the lead as choreographer. Daniels includes multiple styles of dance onstage. “Havana” will feature full partner dancing and lifts, while “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” will involve chair work.
“’Havana’ is my favorite number,” Daniels admits. “It’s amazing to see the entire cast onstage in unison, and you can’t really tell who is who. But each number has aspects of jazz, with one having some soft shoe quirks. The Hot Box [Dancers’] numbers are bouncy and light, while ‘Crapshoot’ is into the floor and bold.”
Lance Howell is building the colorful world—and with double the stage size as previous Thalian shows. “But the abundance of space will help with quicker scene changes,” he adds. “At least I hope so.”
Debbie Sheu is bringing color with 1950s costuming. It’s not her first time doing “Guys and Dolls” either. “So having her expertise is definitely an asset,” Thompson says.
A nine-piece band will power through the score, thanks to music director Cathy Street, who has Myron Harmon and Katie Deese on keys; Jake Yates and Casey Black on trumpet; Andy Stanfill on trombone; Toree McLamb on sax/flute/clarinet; Scott Holmes on violin; Vince Bove on bass; and JJ Street on drums. They will play swing and big-band styles of the era.
“The horn parts are fantastic,” Street tells. “There are a lot of songs that clip along at a really quick pace, so it keeps us on our toes musically. Probably my favorite is ‘Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat’ because it is such fun, and we have almost the entire cast onstage singing some killer back-ups.”
Guys and Dolls
February 13-16, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday matinee at 3 p.m.
UNCW’s Kenan Auditorium, 515 Wagoner Dr.
$16-$32 • thalian.org