Here’s the dilemma faced by Mark Clements and his team of scalawags.
You’ve got this 67 year old musical that won five Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Direction. Then you’ve got the same show as a movie 62 years ago with no less than Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra in the lead roles.
You’ve also got a musical that has been produced by countless grade and high schools, community theaters, semi-professional and professional companies. To suggest that since its Broadway debut it’s been performed over a million times may not be stretching the truth.
Clements was faced with the issue of how to take “Guys and Dolls” and make it interesting and meaningful.
What he finally did was to take Popeye and Olive Oil and turn them into real people who were much more than animations on a piece of paper or a television or movie screen.
And the decision was greeted with magnificent approval by the full house at The Rep last week.
Everybody knows about this musical. How it’s adapted from several Damon Runyan short stories. How it’s about the ne’er do wells who hang on the fringe of New York City crime. They aren’t the big dogs of the Mafia, but the small dogs of the corner crap games and and five card stud in backrooms. It’s those guys and the dames who hang around them. Where every word that starts with “th” sounds like it starts with the letter “d” and it sounds like everybody talks through their nose instead of their mouth.
These characters – especially the four main characters – have been around so much that they have turned into cartoon characters. Nathan Detroit, who runs the crap game, Adelaide, his fiance of 14 years who dances at the Hot Box, Sky Masterson, a big roller who travels the world looking for games and Sister Sarah Brown, the Salvation Army soldier who is on a relentless holy campaign against all sin (with an emphasis on gambling).
Clements decided somewhere along the way to take these characters and move them from cartoons to full-blooded people. He wanted to add depth and breadth to people who we thought we already knew.
Did it work?
Yes, with a couple of minor exceptions.
The four lead actors in this show are Richard R. Henry (Nathan Detroit), Kelley Faulkner (Adelaide), Nicholas Rodriguez (Sky Masterson) and Emma Rose Brooks (Sarah Brown). They are surrounded by assorted gamblers, dancers, singers, bad people, good people and one befuddled cop, handled smartly by Milwaukee’s own Matt Daniels.
Nathan and Adelaide have been engaged for 14 years. He’s afraid of commitment and she wakes up each day hoping that THIS will be the day.
Both Mr. Henry and Ms. Faulkner capture the grit of the street life but the softer (and most important) side of their lives gets buried under a wave of too much of the grit and not enough of the deeper stuff. They remain locked in a single dimension without getting underneath the skin of their characters.
Far more interesting and romantic is the relationship between Sky and Sarah. They meet when he has made a bet that he can lure her out of her cloistered mission to accompany him to Havana for one night of revel. She goes, and the journey of love begins.
He wins his bet but loses his heart, spawning “I’ve Never Been In Love Before,” one of the most beautiful ballads in musical theater history. Mr. Rodriguez’s tenor clasps each note into a delicious hug and drips with emotion. His journey from seductive charmer to earnest lover is heartwarming.
Ms. Brooks has the most treacherous journey of all the characters.
She starts as the prim and proper leader of a ragtag band of do-gooders morphs into a girl who gives in to the temptation of rum and a pulsating Latin beat and ends up a wife and a much more tolerant human being.
She has a wonderful voice and her lyric coloratura filled the hall with passion, fear, doubt and joy. She’s as cute as Mr Rodriguez is handsome and they make a striking couple both physically and emotionally. Mr. Clements has steered these two to the same star in the sky and they shine brightly.
Mr. Clements has a way with a big musical that is the equal to anybody else in the country. Shows like this are in his wheelhouse and he never fails to deliver everything that can be squeezed out of a major piece of musical theater.
His “Man of La Mancha” last year was among the best I’ve ever seen, and that includes Broadway productions.
In this one he pulls out all the stops again. The choreography by Stephen Mear is sharp. Too often choreographers create dances that stand on their own, as if to shine alone. Mear creates dance that is in service to the story and it’s a delight for the eyes.
Dan Kazemi, who is a Rep regular, provides music direction that takes some of the most familiar of songs (“Luck Be A Lady Tonight” and “Sit Down You’re rockin’ The Boat”) gives them a soaring interpretation. The ovation after “Sit Down” seemed to never come to an end.
The costumes by Alexander Tecoma are an absolute treat all by themselves. He captures the spirit of the streets of New York as well as the cabanas in Havana with flights of color and fabric.
The writings of Mr. Runyan are an important part of the history of those who chronicle the times of our lives. And Mr. Clements has added to that history with his rejuvenated production of “Guys and Dolls.”
“Guys and Dolls” runs through Oct. 29 and information on showtimes and tickets is available at www.milwaukeerep.com.
Production Credits: Director, Mark Clements; Choreographer, Stephen Mear; Music Director, Dan Kazemi; Scenic Designer, Scott Davis; Costume Designer, Alexander B. Tecoma; Lighting Designer, Jason Fassl; Sound Designer, Megan B. Henninger; Music Supervisor, John Tanner; Dialect Coach, Clare Arena Haden; Casting Director, Frank Honts; Casting Consultant, JC Clementz; Stage Manager, Mark Johnson.