Story: What’s a small-time gambler circa post-World War II to do? Nathan Detroit may run “the oldest established floating crap game in New York,” but Lt. Brannigan of the NYPD is determined to send Nathan and his cronies to jail, come hell or high stakes.
Nathan needs $1,000 to use acquaintance Joey Biltmore’s garage as the locale for his next venture, but has no cash. The solution, he realizes, is to wager that sum against slick Sky Masterson, who’s been known to bet on which sugar cube a fly will land.
So, Nathan bets Sky that the latter won’t be able to convince a woman of Detroit’s choosing to go to dinner with him. The lady in question turns out to be Sgt. Sarah Brown of the Save-A-Soul Mission, which is struggling to find sinners to visit its Manhattan site. Sky takes the bet, then goes about wooing Sgt. Brown.
He tells Sarah that he’ll guarantee 12 sinners to visit her mission when her boss, General Cartwright, comes calling the next night. He even talks Sarah into going to dinner with him at his favorite place – a ritzy nightclub in Havana, where the teetotaling Sarah learns how much she likes “Cuban milkshakes” which happen to be laced with rum.
As for Nathan, his fiancee of 14 years, a singer named Miss Adelaide, has reached her limit waiting for a wedding proposal. She informs him that she’s been writing letters to her mother in Rhode Island for 12 years, stating that she and Detroit now have five children with a sixth on the way. It’s time for Nathan to marry the woman he professes to love.
When a Chicago gangster named Big Jule arrives in town itching for a crap game, he resorts to cheating to win back all his money and then some from Detroit. Arriving late to the party, Sky makes a bet with all the gamblers: If they win, he owes each of them $1,000; but if he beats them, they owe him a night at the mission.
Who will win those bets? And can Sky convince the skeptical Sarah that he isn’t an inveterate gambler of loose morals?
Highlights: Stray Dog Theatre brings down the curtain on its 2018-19 season with a faithful, rollicking rendition of what some pundits have termed “the perfect musical comedy.”
Other Info: Guys and Dolls, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and a book by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling, won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1950. Based on characters created by 20th century newspaperman and short story writer Damon Runyon, Guys and Dolls was awarded the 1951 Pulitzer Prize for Drama before book co-writer Abe Burrows was vilified by the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee and the prize was rescinded.
Burrows shaped Jo Swerling’s original script, which paired with Loesser’s music to make a Broadway smash that ran for 1,200 performances. Since then it’s enjoyed seven additional productions on Broadway and in London’s West End, garnering a Tony Award for Best Revival in 1992.
Director Gary Bell’s rendition at Tower Grove Abbey fully utilizes the building’s aisles to accommodate his large and energetic cast as they stroll to the well-appointed scenic design conceived by Josh Smith. It features the Hat Box nightclub, where Adelaide performs, at stage right, the Save-A-Soul Mission at stage left and a newsstand at center back.
Unfortunately, the tiny stage permits only a fleeting reference to a Havana nightclub. Dancing in the bright, effervescent Havana number is similarly muted, with just one other couple on the floor besides Sky and Sarah. Much more illustrative of how lively Mike Hodges’ choreography can be is the pulsating Luck Be a Lady number featuring Sky and his cadre of gamblers in the Manhattan sewers, a production highlight.
Another vibrant moment occurs when Mike Wells as Nicely-Nicely Johnson leads his fellow gamblers and the members of the Save-A-Soul Mission in the gospel- infused number, Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat, again with infectious and stylized dancing.
Lauren Smith’s costumes adorn the guys in handsome attire reminiscent of the late ‘40s as well as suitably skimpy garb for Adelaide and her back-up dancers at the nightclub, all enhanced with Tyler Duenow’s lighting.
Bell coaxes winning performances from his agreeable cast, which is led by the limber Kevin O’Brien as the plucky Detroit. He’s especially humorous in his give-and-take with Sara Rae Womack, who excels as the long-suffering Adelaide, a woman who has convinced her unseen mother that she is married to Nathan and that they have five kids, even if grandmum has never met any of them in a dozen years.
Angela Bubash and Jayde Mitchell pair handsomely as Sarah and Sky, with the latter leading the way on the show’s stirring anthem, Luck Be a Lady, while the former displays a fine voice on the ballads If I Were a Bell and I’ve Never Been in Love Before.
Wells is a humorous Nicely-Nicely, as is Cory Frank as small-time hustler Benny Southstreet and Stephen Henley as ne’er-do-well Harry the Horse. Zachary Stefaniak makes for an amusing if intimidating Big Jule, while Howard S. Bell showcases his own impressive voice as Sarah’s grandfather Arvide on the tune, More I Cannot Wish You.
Others contributing to the presentation’s enjoyable effort are Jennifer Brown as General Cartwright, Chris Moore as Lt. Brannigan, Bryce Miller, Yianni Perahoritis, Jordan Wolk, Kaitlin Gant, Alyssa Durbin and Kayla Dressman, Molly Marie Meyer, Elizabeth Semko and Alyssa Wolf as the lively Hot Box girls.
The orchestra hidden behind the set sounded a bit tinny at times on opening night but music director and pianist Jennifer Buchheit doubtless has her players in fine form by now. They include Joe Akers and Ron Foster on trumpet, Ian Hayden, Lea Gerdes and Joseph Hendricks on reeds, violinist Mallory Golden, trombonist P. Tom Hanson, cellist Michaela Kuba, M. Joshua Ryan on bass and percussionist Joe Winters.
The jokes are as funny as ever and the music still can get one swaying and snapping to its infectious sounds. Guys and Dolls is one swell evening of entertainment.
Musical: Guys and Dolls
Company: Stray Dog Theatre
Venue: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee
Dates: August 15,16, 17, 18, 21, 22, 23, 24
Tickets: $25-$30; contact 865-1995 or StrayDogTheatre.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb