The musical comedy masterpiece, Guys and Dolls, is a rallying cry for couples and couplings to get over their egos and ideals and tie the knot. Ideals like women wanting the perfect man and men who want a life of self-centered freedom are universally acknowledged to be unwise. When it opened on Broadway in 1950, the world was struggling with the aftershocks of World War II and the Great Depression that preceded it. Guys and Dolls said its time to get past the trauma and settle down. Its most rousing tune, “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat”, implies that. This ensemble tune occurs before the ending of the musical, but the night I attended the Guthrie Theater revival, the audience sprang to its feet: not typical of most productions of even beloved musicals, even when a number is a stirring as this one always is. But the Guthrie’s rendition clearly triggered something deep and true. Unsurprisingly, the show itself received a standing ovation as well at the curtain call.
Seven decades later, what was called the “post-war era” is now the stuff of vintage movies, documentaries, and diligent readers of modern history. Therefore, one wonders just why Guys and Dolls still reverberates so thunderously. The answer to that is very simple: there is an undeniable common thread in the history of the human condition that love with that special someone is the path to fulfillment. Argue with that all you want, but couples of all ages and orientations seek long term true love. But as for finding that? Well, there’s the rub.
The apex of the Sexual Revolution hit between 1950 and our present day when so many of that revolution’s assertions have been standardized. So why does this musical drawn from stories set in the 1920s and ’30s by Damon Runyon (1880-1946) still bring us to our feet? The answer seems pretty obvious. Here goes: the downside of the Sexual Revolution set the world on fire with its permissiveness, its divorce rate, its exploding numbers of STD’s including a pandemic whose effects are still exacting dreadful physical pain and gigantic medical bills, its curious children not knowing who their sperm donor parent is, its elevation of visual stimulation over actual sex, the prioritizing of recreational sex over love at times to the point of the compulsive, etc. All that, some of which in certain contexts and doses is certainly just fine, nonetheless, could never cut that thread. The human spirit is resilient and the American musical comedy tradition celebrates that like no other art form. And be assured that director Kent Gash’s production is achingly sensuous, soulfully passionate, and in parts, downright sexy.
One notable aspect of the Guthrie staging is that the casting is interracial, something unthinkable seven decades ago. However, the core values of Guys and Dolls are exactly the same. No fixes to the script and lyrics to apologetically politically correct the gender roles and dynamics. Thank God. The production team is also colorblind and it’s clear that all involved have created a labor of musical theater love. Gash has guided the spirit of the show at the most fundamental level to reveal the tragicomic way in which people resist their soul mates. In particular, those no longer in the blush of youth. We’re in the realm of maturity where there’s a sense that time will run out.
Jeremiah James is a prepossessing vision of gangster-era suave as Sky Masterson, a master gambler, who makes a bet that compels him to convince Miss Sarah Brown, a Salvation Army Sergeant determined to save sinners’ souls, to fly with him to Havana. Olivia Hernandez plays the role with just the right balance of snooty high horsemanship and melting vulnerability. She also exudes a marvelous vocal range that goes from sweet soprano to Broadway flair. James’s vocals also soar, especially the stirring Luck Be a Lady.
Additionally, both actors elicit an interior scope and mutual chemistry on the Guthrie’s big thrust stage where intimacy has been known to be swallowed up by the space in lesser productions. There’s an inner wisdom working here that whispers maybe it’s better to resist the sexual impulse before too early and too swiftly indulging it.
Guys and Dolls has a second older iconic couple: Nathan Detroit, a veteran gambler in dire straits, and Miss Adelaide, the woman he’s been engaged to for a maddening (for her) 14 years! They’re also the more comedic pair and these actors play off each other wonderfully. Rodney Gardiner crackles with street smart desperation and Kirsten Wyatt is hilariously incandescent as the zany but always determined Adelaide. Their “Sue Me” duet is sterling.
Wyatt epitomizes inner city femininity of the period between the world wars with gritty charm and fabulously daffy charisma. Her rendition of “A Bushel and a Peck” with the Hot Box Night Club ensemble is pure burlesque delight and her duet with Hernandez, “Marry the Man Today”, is a witty and frank mini-analysis of what women facing marriage sometimes feel up against. It’s a tune of its time that registers with odd relevance in our own time when such attitudes are deemed out-of date.
What Gash’s actors have apprehended is that in order to recognize love and not carelessly dismiss it out of hand and from that point forward, go on to sustain love in the long run, the other must the see the good in the other, and roll with the flaws. Flaws are inevitably human, of course. And something contemporary people have little patience with or understanding. This is crucially important because opposites attract and perhaps that’s what nature or a higher power expects love relationships to be about – to work through the differences in the course of a marriage. What if marriage is the structure for that fulfillment? There seems to be some energetic force that pulls the Guthrie actors in this direction. It may be what makes us root for them on a deep level.
The ensemble gamblers are all played with rollicking vitality, the most striking of which may be Karen Wiese-Thompson in a hilariously bold crossgender turn as Big Jule, an intimidating Chicago gambler out to get a piece of the Big Apple action. You can imagine the man in a back room countin’ the ‘dough’ and smoking cigars with John Dillinger’s boys. Jon Andrew Hegge’s plastically angular Harry the Horse, with his long strides and stretched movements, recalls Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot.
Music director J. Oconer Navarro and vocal coach Dawn-Elin Fraser have seen to it that every song hit its mark with an impressive stamp. This virtue reaches its zenith in the aforementioned “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat”, with its impeccable group vocals shepherded by a powerhouse Regina Marie Williams as the devout Salvation Army General and an endearing Justin Keyes as gambler, Nicely-Nicely, a character who seems to be understanding his limits so that maybe he’ll finally let go, and let God. The orchestra is perfectly balanced with the voices. The instrumentation takes us atmospherically back to almost a century ago. There are moments where the spine tingles.
Choreographer Dell Howlett conjures a fluid mix of styles that marvelously spirit forth the manner and movement of street life of the time. The dance work is remarkable in the performers’ use of their upper bodies – vestiges of vogue, tent revival hosanna, gymnastics, and street dance. Howlett’s movers stream into new positions throughout that fascinate, charm, and uplift. This splendid streaming is well served by Jason Sherwood’s minimalist set design that gleams with nostalgic images of old New York. Kara Harmon’s costumes astound with their beauty. Seldom has daily life of the average Joe and Jane looked quite so lovely and there’s nothing wrong with that! This is art—there’s no requirement to be radically naturalistic. And that explosively yellow coat worn by an ever-earnest Robert O. Berdahl as the police lieutenant is jolting.
?Guys and Dolls also achieves something truly rare in its book by Abe Burrows and Joe Swerling and songs by Frank Loesser. It cracks wise throughout about old time religion as portrayed by the Salvation Army ensemble and the other folks’ response-reaction to them. Some cracks are pretty sharp but it never falls into the zone of disrespecting Christianity. Indeed, Guy and Dolls might be considered to be a deeply Christian work, in the broadest liberal sense.
This points to another feature in the history of Guys and Dolls, and an unjust one at that. The musical was selected as the 1951 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama but Burrows was in trouble with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). It was the McCarthy Era and the time was so charged that no play was awarded that year. Supreme irony: the rant of the McCarthyites railed on about so-called godless communism and its atheistic mandate. Yet, Guys and Dolls unmistakably shows the very Christian Salvation Army as a force for good in a free Judeo-Christian civilization. Call it cutting off your nose to spite your face. Fortunately, Guys and Dolls has triumphantly survived the test of time in spite of that.
Guys and Dolls
Through Aug. 25
Guthrie Theater, 818 S. Second St., Minneapolis