Guys and Dolls

Guys & Dolls

Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo

By Philip Pearce

JEWEL THEATRE COMPANY opened at its new Colligan Theater venue at the Tannery Arts Center in Santa Cruz on Friday with a fast and funny version of Guys and Dolls.

The theater is nothing if not user-friendly. Its 182 seats are raked for maximum visibility and there’s plenty of leg room between rows. Your ticket even gets you a space in a section of the parking lot reserved for Colligan patrons.

In her program notes, Jewel artistic director Julie James says she wanted to launch the Colligan with something “energetic, celebratory and a classic.” She could hardly have made a better choice than Guys and Dolls. American music scholar Bush Jones has called it “just possibly [the] best ever two-plus hours of pure fun in the history of the musical.” Based on two stories by the wonderful Damon Runyan, the script by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows and Frank Loesser’s music and lyrics create magic out of standard ingredients of U.S. musical theatre and the razzle-dazzle of Broadway before Disney and Cameron MacIntosh got hold of it. Guys and Dolls isn’t a slice of life, it’s a brilliant piece of imaginative story telling, a fairy tale with its own quirky idiom and heartbeat, full of obsessed guys who just want to gamble and the heartsick dolls who just want to marry them and settle down.

The cast are great, with strong singing voices and a deft and witty way with Lee Ann Payne’s brisk choreography. Julie James, as you might expect, is a delight as the ever hopeful Miss Adelaide, star dancing chanteuse of the Hot Box Cafe. She is alternately enthusiastic and wistful after a long engagement to Christopher Reber’s funny frantically resourceful Nathan Detroit. Her “Adelaide’s Lament” is a high point of the evening in its pathetic review of the “psychosomatic symptoms, difficult to endure” brought on by fourteen years as “Miss Adelaide, the well-known fiancée.”

The other main romance, of course, is an odd coupling between a slyly gallant big-time gambler and a strong-minded lady evangelist. Sky Masterson, played with force and sympathy and a commanding baritone by David Ledingham, falls unwittingly for the uniformed and determined Sergeant Sarah Brown of the Save a Soul Mission. She is strongly sung and pleasingly acted by Cornelia Burdick Thompson, not least when Sarah succumbs to Masterson’s charm and too much Bacardi rum on a trip to Cuba and realizes that if she were a bell she’d be ringing.

Everybody in the cast of eighteen does a fine job, but special praise has to go to Judith Miller as the starchy but adaptable missionary General Matilda B. Cartwright, and Bob Brown who brings authentic sentiment and sound good sense to the role of Sarah’s good-hearted Uncle Arvide Abernathy.

This was my tenth exposure to this show, starting with its Broadway debut in the 1950s and not counting the execrable Sam Goldwyn screen perversion of 1955. Like every one of the ten stage productions I‘ve seen, here and abroad, Jewel’s cast and crew did right by the familiar score and characters and introduced one or two welcome surprise innovations.

For starters, I gulped when I saw the rotund and accommodating gambler Nicely Nicely Johnson make “his” entrance in the person of Diana Torres Koss. But after about two lines of “The Oldest Established Permanent Floating Crap Game in New York,” the lady had me right in the palm of her hand. She knows how to deliver a wisecrack and belts out even the toughest tongue-twister lyric without missing a syllable.

My next surprise came with the key second act scene where Sky Masterson makes good on a pledge to supply Sarah’s struggling mission with twelve bona fide sinners in the form of some of his crap-shooting buddies. The guys at the Colligan checked in on cue, but Kate Edmunds’ set hadn’t supplied any pews or benches. Were they going to stand throughout the revival meeting? Or sit on the floor? No. Marching on stage like a well-drilled military unit, they marched right off again into the wings, then marched back on again, each carrying a chair. The chairs were lined up and then manipulated, right or left, upstage or down, as a funny and appropriately shifting element in the always show-stopping “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” sung with chutzpa by Koss’s quick-thinking Nicely Nicely. It was a neat and appropriate piece of theatrical magic from Director Linda Piccone.

For all its dash and precision, the show has minor elements that could have worked better than they did. Ben Dorfan’s orchestra was effectively brassy but an occasional musical punch line got swallowed up in all the enthusiastic sound. It’s a problem that could be explored and dealt with as the run continues.

The ending also seemed to lose some of its usual kick. Following directly on Adelaide’s and Sarah’s rousing “Marry the Man Today” duet, we moved right on as usual to Adelaide in bridal gear calling Nathan away from his new and respectable job as a Times Square news vendor. The newly-married Sky arrived, banging the bass drum of the Save a Soul Mission brass band. But the funny visual dream vignettes the script provides to show the two bridegrooms dealing with laundry and other future domestic chores are missing—and I for one missed them.

But for joy and wit and some authentic urban sentiment, it would be hard to fault this delightful Guys and Dolls.It plays at the Colligan, in the Tannery Arts Center, through December 6th.