Saturday, March 7, 2009

Revisiting Runyonland

Guys and Dolls
Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser
Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, based on characters created by Damon Runyon

Directed by Des McAnuff

Starring Craig Bierko, Lauren Graham, Kate Jennings Grant, Oliver Platt

Performances from February 5, 2009

Nederlander Theatre
208 West 41st Street

Grant and Graham in
Guys and Dolls
(photo: Carol Rosegg)
Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls is one of the few truly indestructible musicals. The latest evidence is Des McAnuff’s current production, a bumpy ride for much of its length that ends up at least fitfully satisfying.

Based on Damon Runyon’s colorful stories, Guys and Dolls mixes romance with intrigue, high drama with low comedy, in a way that few other musicals do. Loesser’s songs--wonderful character studies, slices of life and city vignettes rolled into one--are eminently hummable, and Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows’ book shrewdly balances Runyon’s grittiness and Loesser’s tunefulness.

McAnuff begins his staging with an unexpected bang: the Sergio Trujillo-choreographed dances to the curtain-raising Overture, with lots of activity on the streets of New York. This iffy decision makes the real opening number, “Runyonland”--which also choreographs everyday life on the street--superfluous, and there’s not enough variety in the choreography to distinguish one from the other.

In McAnuff’s staging, many of the scenes--particularly in the first act--don’t flow smoothly to the next; instead, they seem merely disconnected sketches with little rhyme or reason. Part of that stems from the problematic casting. Oliver Platt’s two-bit gambler Nathan Detroit is unsure whether he’s playing it straight or sending up the part, stranding himself in no-man’s land. Craig Bierko’s Sky Masterston is too much the slick New Yawk gangster, and Kate Jennings Grant’s portrayal of missionary Sarah Brown is so hard-as-nails that there’s little breathing room for vulnerability. Only Lauren Graham, as a delightful Adelaide, finesses the fine line between Betty Boop-like ditsiness and romantic longing.

At least Grant and Bierko sing well, and Graham surprises in her buoyant singing and dancing during “A Bushel and a Peck“ and “Take Back Your Mink“; only Platt seems out of his element throughout.

Choreographer Trujillo’s treatment of the big dance numbers “Havana” and “The Crapshooter’s Dance” are zesty without being especially dynamic, while Paul Tazewell’s costumes ape loud 1920s pin-stripe suits and flapper dresses sans stylishness. Best of all are the visuals: Howell Binkley’s lighting, Robert Brill’s scenery, and Dustin O’Neill’s eye-catching projections provide a continuous movie of New York City in action--El trains, skyscrapers and subway riders in the city that never sleeps.

This latest incarnation of the “musical fable of Broadway” might not roll a seven, but luckily doesn‘t come up snake eyes either.

originally posted on

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