Theater Review: ‘Guys and Dolls’

A perfect seven and eleven
April 17, 2014 Updated: April 17, 2014

NEW YORK—If one could take the entire cast and technical elements from the recent one-night-only Carnegie Hall benefit performance of “Guys and Dolls” (music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows) and move it lock, stock, and crap game to Broadway, you would have a hit that would run for years. The various elements of this production come together so beautifully as to create a magical evening.

Based on the stories of Damon Runyan, “Guys and Dolls” is set in a world where gangsters and gamblers roam the streets of Broadway, including one Nathan Detroit (Nathan Lane), who runs “the oldest permanent floating crap game in New York.”

Detroit has made a promise to Miss Adelaide (Megan Mullally), to whom he’s been engaged for 14 years, that he would give up this type of life once and for all. But at the moment Nathan is having trouble finding a suitable spot to get the game going again as the police are breathing down his neck.

In fact, he can find only one place willing to host the action. That is, if he can give them $1,000 in advance as a security deposit.

Desperate to raise the cash quickly, Nathan makes a bet with hi-rolling gambler Sky Masterson (Patrick Wilson), who is heading to Havana on business. The bet is that Sky cannot take any woman Nathan chooses to accompany him on the trip. Nathan’s choice: the pretty and determined Sarah Brown (Sierra Boggess), a sergeant with the Salvation Army who works at a nearby mission and who is determined to sweep the streets of Broadway clean of sinners.

Initially Sarah does not take too kindly to Sky’s overtures, but when the mission is threatened with closure due to lack of attendance, and Sky offers to deliver one dozen sinners to an upcoming prayer meeting in exchange for Sarah coming with him, she agrees.

Cool to each other at first, each seeing the other as simply a means to an end, the two unexpectedly start to fall for each another. This creates a situation that gets even more complicated when they return to New York to face a sobering reminder of just how different the worlds they come from truly are.

Offering a wonderful look at a world that never really existed, peopled with folks who will never use one word when ten will do, “Guys and Dolls” succeeds due to the ultimate simplicity of the story: will a totally mismatched couple be able to find happiness with one another?—an idea that is relatable to just about everyone.

It also helps tremendously that the characters in the show are totally endearing. All come across as old friends, whom one gladly follows wherever they might lead. It’s also a tale brought brilliantly to life by the absolutely wonderful Frank Loesser score, performed here by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, under the strong guiding baton of musical director and conductor Rob Fisher. The members of the onstage orchestra even find themselves being drawn into the story at times.

While the entire cast is excellent, best of all are Mullally as the long-suffering Adelaide, and Boggess as Sarah, not so much a repressed woman as one who has never had time for love in her life, until she meets Sky.

Both women have excellent voices. Mullally hits it out of the park with “Adelaide’s Lament,” where she sings about what it’s cost her to wait for Nathan all these years; and she also does a nice duet with Lane in “Sue Me,” where it looks like Adelaide will finally give Nathan his walking papers.

As for Boggess, she gives an absolutely brilliant rendition of “If I Were A Bell,” a song delivered in such a way as to show Sarah undergoing an complete spiritual rebirth as she finds herself coming alive in a whole new way.

Since each of their characters are in separate storylines, the two are never on stage together until almost the very end of the show when they do a hilarious duet called “Marry the Man Today.” It shows once and for all just who is going to be the boss when it comes to their significant others.

Lane meanwhile easily slips back into the role of Nathan Detroit, having previously performed it in a 1992 Broadway revival, earning a Tony nomination in the process. Playing the role with more than a bit of ham and endless double takes, Lane is still able to make Detroit an ultimately vulnerable guy and one afraid of commitment. He’s torn between the love of his life and the lifestyle he so enjoys.

Wilson is fine as Sky, the gangster with his own personal set of ethics, though he does come off as a little bland a times. Not really his fault, Sky is more rigidly drawn than any of the other major characters; he is without a chance to really break out of his narrow confines as Sarah is given. However he nicely put across the powerful “Luck Be a Lady,” the resolution of which sets up the final section of the story.

Also quite good is Len Cariou as Sarah’s uncle and fellow mission worker, whose advice to Sarah via the song “More I Cannot Wish You” received the most applause of the evening. That is, until “The Crapshooters Dance” which showcased some amazing flips and moves; and the show-stopping “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.” The latter number alone made the production completely worth seeing.

The rest of the score is just as good, from the opening number “Fugue for Tinhorns” to the title tune.

Kudos to director Jack O’Brien and choreographer Joshua Bergasse for their wonderful work in making the almost three-hour production fly by in seemingly no time at all.

Wendall K. Harrington’s use of projections worked nicely, setting the various locations for the tale. Two minor tech quibbles elsewhere: the costumes, with help from William Ivey Long, who’s listed as the “costume consultant” were nicely done, though it would have been nice to see a bit more color mixed in with the grayish outfits the various gangsters wore. Sound design by Nevin Steinberg worked for the most part though some of the lyrics at times got drowned out by the sound of the orchestra. But other than these few little nits, the show was an absolute dream.

While it’s uncertain when “Guys and Dolls” will be revived on Broadway again, the next attempt will certainly have a lot to live up to as this Carnegie Hall production has set the bar very high indeed.

Also in the cast were John Treacy Egan, Christopher Fitzgerald, Colman Domingo, Allison Blackwell, J.D. Webster, Linda Mugleston, Joseph Torello, Lee Wilkof, Robert Clohessy, John Bolton, Judy Kaye, Steve Schirripa, Jason Mills, Glenn Seven Allen, Stephen Carrasco, Taurean Everett, Manuel Herrera, Adam Jepsen, Jason Mills, Curt Olds, Nicholas Rodriguez, Michaeljon Slinger, Justin Urso, Cody Williams, Amos Wolff, Paloma Garcia-Lee, Jenny LaRoche, Samantha Sturm, Katie Webber.

Guys and Dolls Vocal Ensemble: Adam Alexander, Cree Carrico, Nicholas Dávilla, Christine DiGiallonardo, Rebecca Eichenberger, Constantine, Germanacos, Gaelen Gilliand, Juan José Ibarra, Denis Lambert, Timothy McDevitt, Max Miller, and Brian Charles Rooney.

“Guys and Dolls”
Carnegie Hall
881 7th Avenue
Performed: April 3, 2014

Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.