Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 2006
This production is all about the Shook sisters – Karla and Kelly – who play Miss Sarah Brown and Miss Adelaide respectively. They are in the prime of their lives and are a joy to watch, alone and together, on the stage. The Mac-Haydn has been their theatrical home since they were children, and it is wonderful to see them so well cast in such a great show.
And let’s face it Guys and Dolls is a great show. Frank Loesser was a genius, his music and lyrics as clever and inventive as they were in 1950. The book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows brings Damon Runyon’s fictional Broadway world of two-bit gambling guys and their gum-snapping dolls vividly to life.
For this production at the Mac-Haydn Tirza Chappell and Barbara Peduzzi have collaborated on witty costumes in bright comic book colors, and Kevin Gleason has splashed complimentary colors all over the wall panels. Internally lit signs hung throughout the theatre bear the names of great Broadway theatres past and present. Rusty Curcio’s direction and choreography is fast-paced and funny. And the cast is almost perfect.
I say almost because, alas, Richard Wiedlich, who is cast as Sky Masterson seems to be performing in a completely different show. What’s so hard to understand? All he has to do is look across the stage at the brilliantly Runyonesque performances by John Saunders (Nathan Detroit), Byron DeMent (Nicely-Nicely Johnson), Jason Paul (Benny Southstreet), and the Shooks to figure out that this is Guys and Dolls and he is playing a gangster. Instead Wiedlich wanders about the stage being laid-back and naturalistic in his speech and demeanor. He’s good looking but not that handsome, and sings well but not dramatically so. His Sky is just a gosh-darned nice guy, he’s not greasy or dangerous or any of those things that should simultaneously scare Sarah off and lure her in. He’s just this cipher where a character should be. Luckily the rest of the cast cheerfully plows ahead with the merriment and Wiedlich gets towed along for the ride.
So let’s get on with the good stuff, of which there is heaps and heaps.
When I first got word that Karla Shook would be playing Miss Sarah Brown and Kelly L. Shook would be playing Miss Adelaide, I was surprised. Usually Karla plays the floozy and Kelly plays the ingénue. (I will be referring to the Shooks by their first names in this review because that is the easiest and least verbally cumbersome method of distinguishing between them.) This is not because they aren’t capable of playing the opposite roles, it is merely typecasting based primarily on physical appearance. And while Karla plays a fabulous bimbo, I know I am on record somewhere lamenting directors’ inability to move past typecasting and give her a wider variety of roles.
Basically, what Kelly, Karla and Curcio have done with these conventionally two-dimensional roles is turned them in to three-dimensional women with whom, for all their comedic stereotyping, the audience can easily relate. I am so used to seeing Sarah Brown played as a bloodless goodie-two-shoes that I was blown away by what a strong comedienne like Karla can do with the role. She pulls out all the stops physically and vocally for Sarah’s moment of drunken epiphany in Havana, which climaxes with the number If I Were a Bell. Karla makes Sarah funny and touching and thoroughly human. She also sings up a storm.
And Kelly plays Miss Adelaide as a tragic heroine. That may sound weird, but it works. In fact, her tragedy is plainly built into the script and lyrics, I had just never heard them so clearly before. With a pile of blonde curls on her head, an irrepressible squeak in her voice, and her box of Kleenex clutched tightly to her bosom Kelly’s Adelaide bravely fights an apparently futile battle for her man and her sanity in every scene – except when she joins her chorus girls onstage at the Hot Box in hilariously talent-free production numbers.
Kelly is delightfully paired with Saunders’ Nathan. Saunders also gives an intense and three-dimensional performance in what can become a comic caricature of a role. By the time he and Kelly tackle their heart-wrenching duet Sue Me late in the second act, featuring powerful vocals from both players, you wonder if Nathan and Adelaide’s relationship will ever heal. But then Miss Sarah and Miss Adelaide team up for their big duet Marry the Man Today and you are left with no doubt that Nathan and Sky’s (or should I say Obadiah’s?) carefree bachelor days are over.
As Nathan’s side-kicks DeMent and Paul are funny and in fine voice. Frankly, I was delighted when I heard DeMent would be playing Nicely-Nicely because that meant he got to sing all those great songs:“Fugue for Tinhorns, Guys and Dolls, and my very favorite of all time Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat. He did not disappoint on the latter, nor did the lively ensemble vocals (that’s Karla on the sustained high note) and dancing that accompanied him. And he teamed beautifully with Paul on the title number and with Paul and Kyle Erickson Hewitt as Rusty Charlie on the opening tune.
In minor roles Brandon Davis as Harry the Horse and Andrew Eckert as Brandy Bottle Bates just tickled my funny bone. I especially loved Eckert’s line to Miss Adelaide as she emerged from her kitchen shower. Listen for it – it’s a hoot.
Basically this show is a kick for all the guys in the company. The characters are strong, the songs are fabulous, and their dance numbers are invigorating. The women don’t fare nearly so well, except those Hot Box Girls. Wait until you see them in their barnyard outfits for Bushel and a Peck. Millinery has never been so rustic or so funny.
As always, Michael Shiles and Stephen Bolte are solid in the character roles of Arvide Abernathy and Lieutenant Brannigan. And Elizabeth Dowling, who has been sorely wasted after her charming Nellie in South Pacific at the beginning of the season, is nicely restrained as General Cartwright, blithely encouraging “Mister Horse” to continue his testimony.
This is the Mac-Haydn at their best, allowing their core company to shine in a classic of the American musical stage. Cats was spectacular, but Guys and Dolls is a show about people you can relate to with strong performances by actors you have come to know and love. It is well worth a visit.
Guys and Dolls runs through August 20 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Route 203 just north of the center of Chatham, NY. The show runs two hours and forty-five minutes with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-9292.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006