Thalian Association is taking a trip across town to Kenan Auditorium for a production of the 1950 Broadway show, “Guys and Dolls.” The adaptation of Damon Runyon’s stories to the stage was created by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser.
“Guys and Dolls” is highly stylized. It gives a wonderfully sanitized look at the seedy life of gamblers and their hangers-on in New York prior to WWII. For example, the one time someone has a gun on stage, the others all act like they have never held one and treat it like a hot potato. Nathan Detroit (Jon Wallin) and his “staff”—Nicely-Nicely (Sam Robinson), Benny Southstreet (Logan Mack) and Rusty Charlie (Dalton Crocker)—have been running “The Oldest Established Floating Craps Game in New York” since Nathan was a juvenile delinquent. Now, thanks to Lt. Brannigan (Rodney Bullard) and his studious attention to their business concerns, they cannot find a location for the game. As they recount their troubles in song, the only place they seem able to secure is Joey Biltmore’s garage.
Here’s the hitch: Joey has known Nathan long enough to insist upon $1,000 upfront for the use of his premises. Nathan, the resourceful hustler he is, hits upon a plan to get the money: He will bet notorious high-roller Sky Masterson (Brenton Schraff) that Sky can’t take the woman Nathan chooses to dinner in Havana, Cuba. Sky is used to women falling all over him, so it sounds like a sucker’s bet—until Nathan chooses Sarah Brown (Samantha Mifsud) from Save a Soul Mission. Sky points himself toward the Mission and wanders in to be saved.
Schraff plays Masterson with the accent and pushy attitude of a stereotypical northeastern male. I don’t blame Sarah for not wanting any part of this; it’s hard to get past his veneer, even in a passing conversation, much less on a plane ride to have dinner. Unpleasant outer-trappings of Sky aside, Sarah has a sweetness about her. Her life operates within a specific series of parameters, but Masterson is not part of it. At least he isn’t up until he kisses her and promises to produce 12 bonafide sinners for the big prayer meeting at her mission—the one she has to make successful or powers that be will shut down the operation.
During the duet “I’ll Know,” which culminates in a kiss, Schraff’s moment of dawning recognition can be traced throughout the song. What is more surprising is Mifsud. Frequently, she is cast to play very sexy, outrageous roles, and understandably so; she’s gorgeous and talented in song and dance. Debbie Sheu has put Mifsud in a dowdy uniform, complete with a horrifying bonnet that makes her almost unrecognizable. (It also creates a powerful visual contrast to the colorful ensembles of the gangsters on the street). Seeing Misfud as a frumpy, inexperienced church girl is quite a transformation. She makes it believable. Moreover, her journey with Sky is bumpy, as is love, but for these two, it’s harder than normal. Mifsud makes Sarah a very believable young woman, swimming in waters too deep for her. Her Sarah is real, and she blossoms before our eyes.
While Sky and Sarah are busy touring Cuba, and fighting the age-old battle of all being fair in love and war, Nathan is trying to keep his craps game going and to appease his long-suffering fiancée, Miss Adelaide (Katie Villecco). We all have heard of long engagements, but these two have been planning their trip to the altar for 14 years! It’s not that Nathan doesn’t love Adelaide. Much to the contrary; he’s not ready for that kind of responsibility yet—but “soon, soon,” he promises.
Villecco pretty much steals the show as Miss Adelaide, the top attraction at a second-rate nightclub. We first see her perform with the Hot Box Girls (Audra Heberd, Ava Eller, Skylar Vandahaar, Tess Luman Sarah Mathews, Michelle Wheeler, Candi Johnson Terry, Mariah Martin, Ella Gordon and Kimberly Brumsey) in the absurd and cutesy parody “I Love You a Bushel and a Peck.” However, “Adelaide’s Lament” was hands-down my favorite song of the show. Villecco treats us to a nasally, New York-accented monologue about psychosomatic illness, brought on by disappointment in love. It is hilarious and pulls at the heartstrings. We easily understand why Nathan is in love with her—and also why he is loathed to commit to matrimony. Between the two, it becomes much more the journey of Adelaide finally getting Nathan to the altar than anything.
My second favorite number of the evening is “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” sung during the prayer meeting. Sam Robinson, who sings lead, has grown into one of my favorite performers in recent years. His sense of fun on stage is infectious. With his beautiful voice, he’s phenomenal.
Debbie Scheu’s costumes are great, from the assortment of gangster suits to the successively more enticing breakaway pieces of the Hot Box Girls’ costumes during “Take Back Your Mink.” At every turn, her work visually enhances the story.
Lance Howell has built a wonderful set to communicate the hustle and bustle of city life. Yet, outside of an evocatively lit sewer scene, the lighting choices were a bit confusing. On one hand, audiences can see everybody onstage; on the other, in the absence of street lights, it was somehow the most brightly lit, late-night park bench rendezvous I’ve ever witnessed in New York City. It seems like all indoor and outdoor spaces in the city have the same access to electricity, which isn’t terribly convincing.
No matter the small technicalities, “Guys and Dolls” is a fun evening. It runs a bit long and could have been tightened in a lot of places to shave off a good 15 or 20 minutes. But the score is fun, and the performers have a lot of heart and humor. I loved what they brought to the stage.
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