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Guthrie’s ‘Guys and Dolls’ rises above its outdated self; Minnesota Orchestra in Plymouth

ALSO: T2P2 at the Amsterdam; Wendy Lewis at Icehouse; “Moon” at the Trylon; and more.

Justin Keyes, center, and the cast of “Guys and Dolls” performing “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat.”
Justin Keyes, center, and the cast of “Guys and Dolls” performing “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat.”
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

It’s a 70-year-old musical where all the women are called “dolls.” Several strip down to corsets and dance. One has waited 14 years for the man she loves to marry her, and meanwhile has been lying to her mother about her fiancé and her marital status. Another flies to Havana with a smooth-talking gambler and has her first-ever drink. And her second.

Does the Guthrie want us to hate this year’s big summer musical? If it does, it has failed. The current production of “Guys and Dolls,” which opened Friday on the thrust stage, is tremendously entertaining and tons of fun. First produced in 1950, based on a story by Damon Runyon, Frank Loesser’s musical is an American classic from another time with other sensibilities. Under Kent Gash’s expert and imaginative direction, it rises above the pitfalls of its outdated, problematic, misogynistic self.

In this “Guys and Dolls,” which has not been rewritten or even moved forward in time, the women are stronger, more capable and way smarter than the men. The diverse cast is one-third women. Women are half the creative team. The costumes and lighting were designed by women. The stage manager is a woman. So are the associate music director, the dramaturg, and the voice and dialect coach.

It looks like a production that spared no expense. It has a cast of 30, a live band with 10 musicians (seated at the back of the stage, above the backdrop, where you can often see them), giant drop-down lights that spell out GUYS AND DOLLS and a dizzying number of costumes. The vivid, exaggerated backdrop could have come out of a Warner Bros. cartoon. Bubbles drift down from the ceiling.The colors are eye-popping and the dancing is over the top, complete with a couple of mid-air somersaults. Big props to choreographer Dell Howlett for the stepping scene. Wow.

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The attitude throughout is tongue-in-cheek. (That airplane! Wait for it.) You can come for the music, stay for the love stories and leave with a smile on your face, maybe humming a tune. Like “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” “If I Were a Bell” or “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat.”

“Sit Down,” a song from Act Two set inside the Save-a-Soul Mission, is a literal show-stopper, which is saying a lot for a musical famous for a long line of great songs. Sung by Justin Keys as Nicely-Nicely Johnson (his beautiful voice grabbed us in the very first scene), with help from the ensemble and Regina Marie Williams as General Matilda B. Cartwright, it brought the opening night crowd to its feet. A standing ovation mid-show surprised and delighted the cast.

“Guys and Dolls” is full of quick, unexpected jokes and funny lines, looks, movements and gestures. The hilarity with heart award goes to Kirsten Wyatt’s Miss Adelaide, long engaged, mad as heck but genuinely in love with Nathan Detroit (Rodney Gardiner). Last seen at the Guthrie in “Metamorphoses,” Gardiner manages to be both slippery and lovable as a man trying to find a home for his floating crap game and avoid the altar.

As gambler Sky Masterson and missionary Sarah Brown, Jeremiah James and Olivia Hernandez are a good match physically and vocally, a high point being when James starts off “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” a cappella and on his own. The chameleon Angela Timberman appears as Agatha, a member of the Mission Band, as Joey Biltmore and as one of the ensemble. Karen Wiese-Thompson, who has acted in ten thousand plays with Ten Thousand Things, is menacing and outrageous as Chicago gambler Big Jule.

Other recent productions of the musical have been called “sexist and creepy,” “trashy,” “white supremacist” and “repugnant(ly) chauvinistic.” We heard nothing of the sort as we exited the Guthrie in a chattering, happy crowd.

“Guys and Dolls” continues through Aug. 25. FMI and tickets ($34-93).

The picks

It’s a Tuesday pile-up.

Tonight (Tuesday, July 2) at the Amsterdam: The Theater of Public Policy: Walking on the Wild Side of Plants. We still haven’t gotten around to getting the impatiens or whatever for our two sad front flower pots.  But if you have a green thumb or aspire to one, and if you just love plants to pieces, come see Dr. James Bradeen, head of the U’s Department of Plant Pathology, as he’s smartly grilled by T2P2’s Q&A masters, then gently skewered with improv comedy. Note that this summer’s T2P2 shows will take place at the Amsterdam in St. Paul, not the Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater. Doors at 5:30 p.m., show at 6. FMI and tickets ($12 advance, $15 door).

Courtesy of the Minnesota History Center
Power rock group Porcupine, which recently added former Hüsker Dü bassist Greg Norton to its lineup, performs tonight at the Minnesota History Center.
Tonight at the Minnesota History Center: Bands on the Boulevard: Porcupine. In honor of its current exhibit “First Avenue: Stories of Minnesota’s Mainroom,” the History Center is going all First Ave for this summer’s free concert series on the lawn. Concerts run every Tuesday in July. Power rock group Porcupine recently added former Hüsker Dü bassist Greg Norton to its lineup. Next Tuesday, July 9: Hieruspecs. July 16: Monica LaPlante. July 23: Lena Elizabeth. July 30: Nooky Jones. Bring a lawn chair and pack a picnic or purchase food at the History Center’s café. Come early to view the exhibit and get in free every Tuesday from 3-8 p.m. Concerts run 6:30-8 p.m.

Tonight at TPT: American Experience: “Chasing the Moon” screening and discussion. You can wait until Monday (July 8) to see this on your teevee or stream it. Or you can watch it in TPT’s Street Space and stick around after for a panel discussion with experts from the U of M. Featuring previously overlooked and lost archival material, Robert Stone’s film reimagines the race to the moon for a new generation. So this won’t be the same old story. 7 p.m. FMI. Free, but please RSVP.

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Tonight at the Trylon: “Moon.” Sam Bell is nearing the end of a three-year stay on the moon, alone except for an AI system named GERTY, when he starts feeling strange. Written and directed by Duncan Jones (David Bowie’s son) and starring Oscar winner Sam Rockwell (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), this “surprising and seminal sci-fi movie” is part of the Trylon’s summer-long celebration of the moon landing’s 50th anniversary. Shown in 35mm. 7 and 9 p.m. FMI and tickets ($8).

Tonight at Icehouse: Wendy Lewis. We still have crystalline memories of hearing Wendy Lewis sing “Blue Velvet” with the Bad Plus at the Cedar. Never mind that was 10 years ago.   Lewis is the only singer to have recorded and toured with the trio; their album, “For All I Care,” remains a standout. But before she did that, Lewis had bands of her own including Rhea Valentine, Redstart and Mary Nail. She has also worked with Andrew Bird, Haley Bonar, Bill Carrothers and Charlie Parr. Tonight Lewis begins a monthlong Icehouse residency during which she’ll explore what she calls “abandoned songs” – songs that were written and recorded long ago, or set aside. A changing cast of special guests will help her bring them back to life. 8 p.m. tonight and every Tuesday in July. FMI and tickets ($12 advance, $15 door).

Associate conductor Akiko Fujimoto
Courtesy of the Minnesota Orchestra
Associate conductor Akiko Fujimoto will lead the Minnesota Orchestra in an hourlong program of music for a summer’s night.
Tonight at Hilde Performance Center in Plymouth: Minnesota Orchestra: Symphony for the Cities. Associate conductor Akiko Fujimoto lead the band in an hourlong program of music for a summer’s night: the late Stanislaw Skrowaczewski’s arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Dvorák’s “Carnival” Overture, Tchaikovsky’s “1812” Overture, music from “Star Wars” and more. 8:30 p.m. FMI. Free. Did you know the Hilde was designed by the same architects who created the Lake Harriet Bandshell? We didn’t.