Arlington — From the first trumpet notes of Fugue for Tinhorns—yup, we’re off to the races, theatrically speaking—Theatre Arlington’s bustling, bright version of Guys and Dolls is headed for the winner’s circle.
With a worn-but-adorable Miss Adelaide (Lori Woods) and a sexy-cool Sky Masterson (Jonah Munroe) in the running, the show is already half-way home—but leave us not forget the super-sized cast has other standout performances. Nimbly directed and choreographed by Brandon Mason, this is an ambitious opening show for TA’s 44th season.
Damon Runyon’s quirky, offbeat tales of Manhattan and Brooklyn lowlifes of the 1920s and 1930s (adapted for G&D by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling) are as distinctly American as P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster tales are British. Once met, Runyon’s crisply articulating hoods and gamblers, deeply invested in their own peculiar code of conduct, are unforgettable—and by the end of the show, you might find yourself speaking in “Runyonese” until the after-effect wears off. We do not kid about these things.
Guys and Dolls should be eye-catching, and scenic designer Tony Curtis’ cartoony Times Square set, backed by kid-drawing skyscrapers, fills the bill. Lighting designer Scott Davis has some interesting effects, notably in the “Luck Be a Lady” sequence. Director Mason’s choreography at times feels hemmed in by the size of the cast onstage—but when he goes with it and compresses the dancers on purpose (as in the elbow-to-elbow male ensemble in “Luck Be a Lady”) he gets our attention. And though the music is pre-recorded, that’s quickly forgotten as music director Alex Vorse gets a lot from his performers, both in solo and “group” singing.
In case you’ve missed out on this classic 1950 American musical, Guys and Dolls follows small-time gambler and “fixer” Nathan Detroit (a delightfully harassed Steven D. Morris), a guy juggling two hot-potato problems. He needs 1) a spot for slightly illegal gambling (Nathan runs “the oldest established permanent floating craps game in New York,” after all), and 2) a good excuse for not (yet) marrying Miss Adelaide, the doll to whom he has been engaged for lo these 14 years.
Desperate for the money he needs to rent a gambling venue, Nathan concocts a bet that has smooth-talker Sky Masterson trying to convince straight-arrow missionary Miss Sarah Brown (Haven Isom, who blows hot and cold with equally come-hither results) to fly away with him for a weekend fling. Miss Sarah’s Save a Soul Mission aims to change the lives of gamblers like Sky—but will she, or won’t she, take a chance?
Frank Loesser’s music and lyrics for Guys and Dolls are such a feast it’s hard to pick the best. As gambler Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Darret Hart’s rich, clear voice anchors “Fugue for Tinhorns” (with Branden A. Bailey as Benny Southstreet and Josh Howell as Rusty Charlie, both excellent on harmonies), the title song “Guys and Dolls” and of course the great “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.” Woods is hilarious in “Adelaide’s Lament” (“a poy-son could develop a cold”) and her “Sue Me” with Morris as Nathan—and one forgets just how LOL funny is a lesser-known duet, “Marry the Man Today,” in which the much-tried Adelaide and Sarah tick off their basic rules for snagging (and training) husbands.
Isom, last seen in Artes de la Rosa’s recent musical version of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, has a pretty, operetta-style soprano that can swing lower and growl when the song calls for it—and she can dance “more than somewhat,” to borrow a classic Runyon phrase. Munroe has a pleasantly mellow, intimate singing style as Sky. He scores notably in his pairings with Isom, “I’ll Know” and “I’ve Never Been in Love Before.” There’s a late-night-jazz vibe to his minor-key “My Time of Day,” and he comes on strong with a forceful “Luck Be a Lady.”
All through, the ensemble singing is strong, and plenty of minor characters make their mark. Jake Kelly Harris hangs on to a fine Brooklyn accent as Harry the Horse, and TV’s David Hart (Sgt. Parker Williams on In the Heat of the Night) is a burly and convincing Big Jule, the menacing high roller from Chicago. The Hot Box Girls are flirty and fun, and Jonathan Kennedy gives the gentle role of missionary (and Miss Sarah’s uncle) Arvide some real punch. He is quietly touching in his one solo, “More I Cannot Wish You.” Joanna Philips has some funny bits of business and a contagious smile as mission doll Agatha. And Kyle Sapienza’s quirky brogue as ever-watchful police lieutenant Brannigan gives us something to think about: was his “Ma” Irish and his “Da” Scottish—or was it the other way around?
Runyon would never recognize the cleaned-out, gussied-up Times Square of 2016—but we’re glad he left us a way to visit his offbeat, possibly fantastical version of New Yawk back in the day. Bring on the egg creams and the pastrami!
Or as Runyon would say: Nicely-nicely done, all.