During intermission Sunday afternoon at Broadway Rose’s mostly swell revival of Guys and Dolls, a high-powered musical-theater vehicle driven deftly by Ryan Reilly’s mellifluous Sky Masterson and Emily Sahler’s comic knockout of a Miss Adelaide, I found myself thinking, oddly, of the opening paragraphs of Katherine Dunn’s grand and slyly heartbreaking novel Geek Love, the story of a family of genetically mutated circus-sideshow performers and their adventures in the world.
The Binewski kids would sit around enchanted as Papa told the family story, a tale both bizarre and familiar, and would make sure Papa stayed the course:
“We children would sense our story slipping away to trivia. Arty would nudge me and I’d pipe up with, ‘Tell about the time when Mama was the geek!’ and Arty and Elly and Iphy and Chick would all slide into line with me on the floor between Papa’s chair and Mama.
“Mama would pretend to be fascinated by her sewing and Papa would tweak his swooping mustache and vibrate his tangled eyebrows, pretending reluctance. ‘Welllll …’ he’d begin, ‘it was a long time ago …’
“ ‘Before we were born!’
“ ‘Before …’ he’d proclaim, waving his arm in his grandest ringmaster style, ‘before I even dreamed you, my dreamlets!’”
I thought of Dunn’s novel not only because both Geek Love and Guys and Dolls are uncanny dreams, tales of outrageous characters and situations in search of a normalcy they can call their own, but also because the Binewski kids, wrapped and rapt in the magic of a familiar story that is also their story, seem like stand-ins for almost any audience at a show like Guys and Dolls.
By this point in its life – the musical debuted on Broadway in 1950, based on already familiar stories by the wise-guy story spinner Damon Runyon – there is no surprise to be sprung; or rather, the surprises come not in the tale itself, which most everybody knows (and bless you if you’re a newbie: there’s nothing like the first time), but in the unveiling of the particulars of this particular production in this particular performance. The warmth and pleasure come not in the shock of the new, but in the communal ritual of revisiting a story known and loved. In a theater world possessed by an overwhelming and necessary urgency to create something new, it’s a good reminder that theater is also built on ritual and repetition, on the familiar fascination of listening once again to a well-told tale. Even if it’s about gangsters or geeks. Tell us again, Papa.
And Guys and Dolls is gorgeously told – one of the greatest of American musicals, with an understated social awareness, the high comedy/low comedy structure of a Shakespeare play (think of it as The Taming of the Guys), and a wink and a nod to American urban myth. It bubbles with the optimism and playfulness of a postwar America getting back on its feet, offering reassurance and respite as the real world spins out of control. (Making this, come to think of it, not a bad time at all for a revival.) The music and lyrics, both by the great Frank Loesser, are splendidly playful and just about perfectly matched; and the book, by the ace team of Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, is a classic blend of comedy and well-earned sentiment. In short, it’s a touchstone, meant to be touched and retouched and touched again. Familiarity, well-done, breeds reassurance and a sense of communal love.
At Broadway Rose, director Sharon Maroney and her co-creators make no attempt to reinvent a wheel that already steers very well, thank you very much. This revival of Guys and Dolls has no overlay of concept, no large statement, no heavy-handed political echoes, no wresting of the material from what its originators had in mind. Just do the show, and do it well. Right out of the gate Maroney plays up the musical’s comic-strip sensibility (thanks to the bright yellow slicker and hat that Lieutenant Brannigan wears over his detective suit I thought of Dick Tracy; my seatmate said it reminded him of the Man in the Yellow Hat in the Curious George books) but as the show goes on the main characters deepen and reveal complexities, even if it takes a little dulce de leche with Bacardi to coax them out. And I don’t mind admitting that as Sky and Sarah and then Nathan and Adelaide gave in to the inevitable, I felt a surge of – what’s that thing? – happiness.
The setup of Guys and Dolls, if not as genuinely and exhilaratingly strange as Dunn’s in Geek Love, is reassuringly oddball and out there: saints and sinners, cops and outlaws, innocence and experience meeting in an urban fantasyland and making surprising discoveries. With characters named Rusty Charlie and Liver Lips Louie and Harry the Horse and Nicely-Nicely Johnson and the Hot Box Girls and Angie the Ox and Benny Southstreet and Big Jule you know you’re not in Tortured American Realism Land. Gangsters and gamblers or not, this is an easier-breezier place, light and metaphorical and just itching to bust out in a tune.
As the low-comedy romantic couple, old pros Sahler as Miss Adelaide and Joe Thiessen as Nathan Detroit are a fine match, both comically and vocally, knowing how to sell characters who are larger than life without letting them sprawl all over the pavement. (And Sahler’s duet with Dru Rutledge as Sarah Brown on Marry the Man Today is a genuine show-stopper.) Reilly, as the suave gambler and well-known relationship escape artist Sky, acts with smooth understatement and establishes the show’s musical mark with his relaxed and cultivated tone on some of the show’s more complex songs (My Kind of Day; his duet with Rutledge on I’ll Know).
Rutledge, a Portland musical-theater favorite, brings an intriguing hard-headed practicality to her portrayal of the mercy-mission princess Sarah Brown, who is often played as someone porcelain and earnest but unapproachable. Rutledge gives her a bright comic edge, a growing self-awareness and appealing jokiness that sends an implicit message: In her own way she’s as tough and savvy as Sky; she can match him and whip him into shape. Among the panoply of comic supporting characters, Brandon B. Weaver takes the rollicking audience favorite Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat for a brisk and breezy and soul-satisfying sail.
The set, from The Music and Theatre Company, is simple and adaptable, leaving Ryan J. Moller’s bright and gaudy comic-book costumes to carry the design day. Choreographer Maria Tucker has pulled together a crack squad of ensemble dancers (Jeff George is the fine dance captain) and given them some sharp and lively and suitably playful steps that push the action briskly along. The 13-pierce pit orchestra, led by Jeffrey Childs, keeps things swift and crisp and brassy.
You could pick a few things apart if you really wanted to – the sets are hardly overwhelming; the action can feel a little overstuffed on the tight Deb Fennell Auditorium stage (which compensates by offering an energizing intimacy from pretty much any seat in the hall), the sound balance can be a little overstated. And, yes, it was probably tighter and more fully realized that time you saw it with Nathan Lane on Broadway back in ’92. Never mind. This is ritual. This is comedy. This is romance. This is our story, told once again, with gusto and wit. Tell us again, Papa. We need this tale, maybe especially when times are bleak. Without it, as Miss Adelaide so deftly points out, a person can develop la grippe.
Guys and Dolls continues through August 19 at Broadway Rose Theatre Company. Ticket and schedule information here.