If one could gamble on a musical’s success, the Long Wharf Theatre season’s kick-off production of “Guys and Dolls” would be a sure bet.
This musical theater staple is completely revitalized in Director Kim Rubinstein’s production. She’s whittled the traditionally flashy razzmatazz nature of the show down to its core. The show might best be compared to a diamond solitaire engagement ring: eye-catching, sparkling and gorgeous yet simple, solid and never overdone.
The story is a familiar one: Nathan Detroit is trying to negotiate a location for his “oldest established permanent floating craps game in New York” while working hard to procrastinate marrying his fiancee of 14 years, Miss Adelaide. In order to get fast cash and pay for a possible craps game location, Nathan bets high-stakes gambler Sky Masterson a thousand dollars that Sky can’t take Salvation Army reformer Sarah Brown to Havana. After Sky wins the bet, he wines and dines Sarah Cuban-style. Sarah starts to realize that perhaps there is more to life than her buttoned-up ways — namely, her blossoming love for Sky. A few craps games, police chases, crazy prayer meetings, and burlesque dances later, the two principal couples end up happily in each others’ arms, for better or for worse.
The Long Wharf Theater is celebrating the big 4-0 with this year’s season, echoed in the mature casting choices of the show. While Sky is traditionally portrayed as a scrappy, too-cool, suave younger man, Dennis Parlato’s older, distinguished, sexy and wry version of Sky is a refreshing spin on a cliche character. Tia Speros as Miss Adelaide hams it up brilliantly in the classic “Adelaide’s Lament,” and her comic facial expressions are to-die-for. Masterful blocking on Rubinstein’s part means that Speros never turns her back for more than a few seconds during her solo number, negotiating the three-quarter stage smoothly. Crista Moore’s clear soprano was perfectly suited to her role as Sarah and was beautifully showcased in “If I Were a Bell.” Ned Eisenberg as Nathan exudes a hilarious buzz of nervous energy as he attempts to juggle an impending marriage, the cops and his gambling bet.
In contrast to the typically overblown productions of “Guys and Dolls,” the Long Wharf stage provides a more intimate space for the show. Songs such as “My Time of Day” and “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” suddenly take on an unexpected tenderness, a nuance that we might never have discovered. While musical romances are typically dismissed as saccharine or manufactured, when Sky and Sarah embrace, I actually believed that these could be two people falling in love. The fact that the pair has spectacular chemistry certainly aids the realism as well.
G. W. Mercier’s brilliant set design navigates the deep thrust of the stage while providing exciting angles and levels for the actors to play off of. The set, like the show, is simple: a sharply angled, raked triangle with an inner triangle cut-out level to the floor. The triangle shape seems to mimic a pool table triangle, while the sharp angles echo the brassy jazz sounds in the score. The minimalist cast of 15 fills the inner triangle space of the set nicely, creating the illusion of a large crowd even when there are only eight people onstage, such as during the “Havana” dance sequence.
The lighting design is comprised of colorful bulbs, like those on a casino slot machine, that are arranged in a triangle overhead. Rubinstein’s decision not to opt for fluorescent Broadway signs was a smart one; typical “Times Square” hardware would overwhelm the space. The same nightlife effect is created just as successfully with the “casino” bulbs.
Overall, there are minimal faults to be found with this production. I was expecting more out of “Luck Be A Lady,” but Parlato’s complete ownership of the Sky Masterson character made the mediocrity of the number forgiveable. Besides, after Nicely Nicely Johnson’s (Richard Ruiz) literally show-stopping “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat”, you could forgive anything. Let’s cut the crap, odds are that you will love this show. So grab yourself a guy (or a doll) and head to the Long Wharf. Here’s to a beautiful 40th birthday!