Thursday, December 10, 2015

Review: Guys and Dolls, Reinvented and Rich with Life at The Wallis

Jeremy Peter Johnson, Richard Howard, and Kate Hurster.
All photos by Kevin Parry

Luck has nothing to do with it. Mary Zimmerman’s Guys and Dolls is a well thought out, surprisingly fresh reinvention of one of the best golden age musicals ever written. The charming production just concluded a 9-month run at Oregon Shakespeare Festival and can now be seen on stage at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts through December 20. It is the second musical to make such a transition following last December’s enchanting Into the Woods, also directed by Zimmerman. Let us hope the tradition will continue.

The show itself is darn near bullet-proof. Based on a story and characters by Damon Runyon, with a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, and music & lyrics by Frank Loesser, it is a world of wisecracking gangsters and starry-eyed dames. At its core it sparkles with hope – of love, of success, and of beating the odds, especially when they aren’t in your favor. It is also a glorious escape, one whose getaway plot is propelled forward by Nathan Detroit’s (Rodney Gardiner) floating crap game in search of a home.

Everyone roots for an underdog and this Detroit is one lovable mug. Between trying to come up with 1000 bucks to move his game to Joey Biltmore’s (Eugene Ma) garage and dodging the altar where his fiancé of 14 years, Adelaide (Robin Goodrin Nordli) is ready and waiting, he’s got his hands full. A sure-fire bet with Sky Masterson (Jeremy Peter Johnson) should bring him the dough for the “oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York” but he hasn’t calculated for risk…especially risk named Sgt. Sarah Brown (Kate Hurster) who runs the Save a Soul Mission.

Every musical theatre fan of the classics knows the story but this retelling first and foremost puts character above all. Many a legit singer has sung Loesser’s songs beautifully but with only a general understanding of their real motivation. Not so under Zimmerman’s direction. Create the world and fill it with actors who know how to reveal their character’s wants and flaws while letting their humanity shine through and you have two of the hallmarks of her method of directing. Sounds easy, but it’s not. Here it works like a dream.

Robin Goodrin Nordli and Rodney Gardiner

Detroit is the pivot point for everything that happens and Gardiner is a constantly moving target with so many balls in the air that a great deal of the fun is in seeing how he spins events in his favor, however temporarily. His chemistry with Goodrin Nordli sets up an endless succession of laughs and her character choices are so original you’ll marvel that no one has ever found what she has in the text before. She is a revelation.

Robin Goodrin Nordli

Johnson also finds the twinkle in Sky Masterson’s eye that other leading men often overlook. He’s smooth alright, and he takes great joy in being a gambler. But when it becomes clear that he has finally met his match and sings “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” to Sarah, it is the kind of tender moment that is a complete tonal change from what has happened previously in the story. Johnson’s vulnerability under that streetlamp is a showstopper, largely because of what it doesn’t do. Even Hurster reinvents the typical straight-laced mission doll by going all out on her drunken spree in Cuba. Her commitment to bringing out the lioness within is hilarious and a welcome change to her earlier buttoned-up behavior.

Kate Hurster and Jeremy Peter Johnson

A large part of the show’s energy is brought to life by Daniel Pelzig’s choreography which runs the gamut from full-on Michael Kidd-inspired production numbers like “The Crap Shooter’s Ballet” to cheeky burlesque Hot Box dances by Adelaide and the girls.

Doug Peck’s musical direction mimics the feverish pace of Runyon’s 1930’s New York City and his singers deliver Loesser’s lyrics with skillful precision. You always get a clue what you’re in for in the vocal department when Benny Southstreet (David Kelly), Rusty Charlie (Joe Wegner), and Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Daniel T. Parker) reach the harmonies at the end of “Fugue for Tinhorns.” If they lock in and Johnson’s high notes lift, you know it’s going to be a good night. At the Wallis, it is indeed a good night.

Miniature skyscrapers are moved about by the actors as if pulled from a diorama and lightly plopped down on a table top to await its miniature people. Scenic designer Daniel Ostling continues the miniature theme with a tiny plane on a high wire zooming overhead to signify the trip to Havana where colorful beach balls bounce across the stage as Cuban breezes blow.

Zimmerman’s Guys and Dolls is such a joy. It seems to remind us of a less jaded world where innocence can triumph over the toughest odds, love comes with an equal measure of patience and persistence, and somehow things always work out in the end. It is also one terrifically written musical. Just what you need to get you through the holidays.

Jonathan Luke Stevens (center) and the cast of Guys and Dolls

L-R: Jonathan Luke Stevens, Al Espinosa, Richard Elmore, Joe Wegner,
Rodney Gardiner, Christopher Henry Young, and David Kelly 

Daniel T. Parker and the cast of Guys and Dolls

Daniel T. Parker and cast

Rodney Gardiner and Robin Goodrin Nordli

December 1-20, 2015
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
9390 N Santa Monica Blvd
Beverly Hills, CA 90210

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