I am going to write about the new production of “Guys and Dolls,” currently playing at the Ordway and coproduced by the Ordway and Seattle’s The 5th Avenue Theatre, and directed by Peter Rothstein. But first a caveats. I am longtime friends with one of the show’s lead actresses, Katherine Strohmaier, who plays the Save-a-Soul missionary, Sarah Brown. As a result of this friendship, my night at “Guys and Dolls” culminated in a spree with the cast of the show, involving an opening-night party, drinks at the St. Paul Hotel, dancing at a gay bar in downtown St. Paul, a hotel room after-party, and, eventually, me waiting for a 5 a.m. bus to take me home, spent in Katherine’s room as she dozed nearby. All this is likely to produce decidedly noncritical affection for a production, but I would have liked it anyway.
I’ve always liked “Guys and Dolls.” There was a period when I had a distaste for the American musical, but I always allowed an affection for this show. I had thought it was a soft part in my otherwise hard heart, but since I have grown to respect and genuinely appreciate the American musical, I now realize that it was, in fact, a hard spot in what was otherwise a soft head. As American musicals go, this is one of the best every written, especially thanks to an extraordinary selection of songs by Frank Loesser.
There’s an old critical joke that’s made at the expense of bad plays with expensive budgets, that you leave the theater humming the scenery, but, in the case of “Guys and Dolls,” I suspect the scenery actually hums the score. As the lights go down, and the audience files out, if you listen closely, you can hear the backdrops and stage properties suddenly bust out singing:
“I got the horse right here / The name is Paul Revere / And here’s a guy that says that the weather’s clear / Can do!”
This may be pure invention of my part, but I was backstage after the show ended, and could swear I heard singing from the stage. Every time I would try to listen in, however, the sounds were drowned out by Katherine, who, inspired by a Tweet I had made at the start of the show, repeatedly belted out the “Simpson’s” version of “Guys and Dolls,” sung to the tune of “Hooray for Hollywood”: “Guys and Dolls! We’re just a bunch of crazy guys and dolls!”
You probably already know the “Guys and Dolls” story, and, if not, I think I can safely presume you were raised in a seaside cave by a flock of unexpectedly maternal seagulls. It retells several stories by Damon Runyon, who created a sort of slangy, poetic, contraction-free vernacular to tell tales of residents of Broadway’s demimonde; in this case, the story focuses on two gamblers and their troubled romances. There is Sky Masterson, who falls for Sarah Brown on a dare, and Nathan Detroit, whose sponsorship of on ongoing floating crap game threatens his endless engagement to brassy showgirl Miss Adelaide. There are two long set pieces in Cuba and in the sewers, a mission house revival, gospel numbers, and then, suddenly, everybody is married. Curtain drops, everybody files out, I get some drinks, and the sets start singing.
The sets in this show are worth noting, by the way. They’re by Kate Sutton-Johnson, and they’re massive, staring with the name of the show, built like an enormous lit billboard, that serves as the show’s curtains. According to Sutton-Johnson, the design was inspired by the Neon Boneyard in Las Vegas, a place where old signs go to die, and so the whole set has the feel of a bunch of signs heaped atop each other — some of the stage structures are embedded in huge letters.
I’ll mention a few things about the show I especially liked, and then acquit myself as an undependendable witness. I found myself especially enjoying Daniel C. Levine as Nathan Detroit. He’s filling a role limned onscreen by Frank Sinatra, and, even though Sinatra reportedly only wore a size 9 shoes, those are, nonetheless, awfully big shoes to fill. Sinatra played the role as an extension of a character he played frequently in film musicals — an everyday, put-upon fellow from Jersey with a hang-dog face and laconic manner who just happened to have the most important singing voice of the 20th century.
Levine doesn’t bother with Sinatra. If there is an antecedent to Levine’s performance, it is Phil Silvers, who specialized in playing wheedling Jewish con artists. But even Silvers was more aggressive than Levine’s Nathan Detroit — this is a man in a constant panic, as, throughout the play, his life consists of patched together schemes that fall to pieces a moment later. He is Phil Silvers as schlimazel rather than schlemiel, and it’s the right choice. This seems to be Nathan Detroit as the play’s creators wrote him, and he plays well against Adelaide, whose plans of romance with Detroit are likewise dependent on his jury-rigged schemes, and likewise prone to spontaneous collapse. If you play Detroit as anything other than hapless, his behavior toward Adelaide is unforgivable.
This plays boasts an especially notable Adelaide in the form of Billie Wildrick. I tried to tell her so after the show, but I had already consumed at least four champagne cocktails, and she demurred from my compliments, which may have been slurred and included involuntary twitching; Wildrick responded that she just played the role as written. Maybe so, but it’s a great role, and Wildrick’s comic time is crackerjack.
It’s the first time I have seen director Rothstein work on a production this big, although, for his own company, Theatre Latte Da, he’s always had big ambitions. I know he’s been working on, shall we say, a larger canvas for a while now, but I was away for a while and missed it. He’s had no problem in scaling up his approach, and, in this instance, he seems to have approached “Guys and Dolls” as a giant neon cartoon. Everything here is overplayed, almost to the point of hamminess, with the characters marching around the stage in exaggerated, comic poses, which is as it should be.
But his production has its moments of humanity as well — Rothstein cast Clayton Corzatte as Arvide Abernathy, Sarah’s grandfather, usually a throwaway role with a few zingers and an inexplicable second act song in which he dotes on his granddaughter, which is often cut.
Corzatte is so naturalistic a performer that it is possible to think somebody’s grandfather actually wandered up on the stage, got confused, put on a costume and just blundered into the play, and he sings with an un-Broadway, but very grandfatherly, voice. His scene with Sarah Brown isn’t a throwaway, but a moment of unfeigned, certain affection in a musical in which all other affection is duplicitous and certainly uncertain.
Katherine Strohmaier was lovely here to watch as well, as she was throughout the show, but I can’t be objective on this subject.