Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser
Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burroughs
Based on a story and Characters of Damon Runyon
Directed by Spiro Veloudos
Choreography by Kim Luke
Musical Direction by Jonathan Goldberg
At the Publick Theatre
Herter Park, Boston Through August 30th

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

I was in London over the 4th of July, and my patriotic gesture was to sit in the first row of the orchestra at the Olivier Theatre watching the current revival of one of the Royal National's most celebrated productions: Richard Eyre's version of the All-American musical, "Guys and Dolls". How good was the English production of this jewel in the tin crown of our American art form? Would you believe, better than Broadway? About as good as a musical comedy ever gets? That there were four encores for the show-stopper, "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat"? That the dancing and acting in ensemble numbers like "Luck be a Lady" was so perfectly detailed and so powerfully expressed that it seemed as if it were all being made up on the spot? That natives and tourists stood on their chairs and hollered themselves puce at curtain call? That if I hadn't had to catch a plane home, I'd have been queued up for Standing Room the next morning, to see it all over again? (Of course, it helps that at the Olivier the British government is subsidizing the tickets, which makes going to the theatre more like taking in a movie than like blowing the week's groceries on a seat at the Wang Center).

So, a month later the Publick Theatre's doing "Guys and Dolls", in a mostly non-Equity version cobbled together for its outdoor stage, requiring set designer Robert M. Russo and costume designer Jana Durland Howland to reproduce the neon and spangles of fifties Broadway on a total budget that probably doesn't equal what the Royal National spends on laundry. So, how good was Spiro Veloudos' Publick Theatre version? Would you believe, damn near as good as Eyre's? And good in very much the same way, and for similar reasons? The Publick's goes right up to the top of my lifetime list of "Guys and Dolls" productions -- and I'm ready to see it over again, too, right now.

First, the shape and sweep of the story in both productions was irresistible. Loesser's score was the emotional map: all the little by-ways were sketched in, but never at the expense of the destination . Solid musical direction -- what a treasure the Publick has in Jonathan Goldberg !-- and a vital give-and -take between instrumentalists and singers gave both shows the improvisatory feel of jazz -- worlds away from the currently popular Megamusicals, where everything must be timed out exactly as it was in rehearsal or the performers risk being brained by incoming special effects. Little ad libs by both casts demonstrated that the Damon Runyon Times Square dialogue rhythms had been internalized-- who knows how. Maybe the actors spend all their free time watching old Jimmy Cagney movies.

For the benefit of anyone unfortunate enough to have missed "Guys and Dolls" so far -- run to the Publick and remedy that deficiency, you fool!-- Frank Loesser composed his brilliant score for the Tin Pan Alley tales of Damon Runyon, an author who delighted in the Broadway low-life and who wrote about them in a way that made them seem funny and charming and lovable to the law-abiding public. "Guys and Dolls" is about Nathan Detroit (Robert Saoud, who runs the "oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York", and his famous fiancee of fourteen years, Miss Adelaide, a headliner at the Hot Box. In a desperate effort to secure a location for his crap game acceptable to Big Jule from Chicago, Nathan bets high roller and successful ladies' man Sky Masterson that he cannot take a certain doll to Havana-- this doll being one Miss Sarah Brown, head of the Salvation Army Mission in Times Square. When Miss Sarah resists his personal attractions, Sky offers to supply "one dozen genuine sinners" for her Mission if Sarah will just have dinner with him in Havana. Of course when she does, the ill-matched pair falls in love.

The contrasting pairs of lovers were well balanced, but as usual Miss Adelaide and Nathan have the edge. Maryann Zschau adopts the standard chalk-on-a-blackboard urban squeak for her Adelaide, but under emotional pressure she dives down to a baritone moan or wails like a trumpet. Zschau gave vent to 90% of the sounds possible to the human voice, all the while staying within a consistent credible and sympathetic character and using diction that carries every crisply delicious word of "Adelaide's lament" and "Mary the Man Today" right to the back row. (Of course, London's incomparable Imelda Staunton gave 110%). Saoud is a lovable bumbler as Nathan, best of all when he throws himself at Adelaide's feet in "Sue Me", but what gives the whole production a solid center is the rounded relationship he has with Adelaide, the complexity the performers have filled in behind the bold strokes of character.

Christopher Swan as Sky, like his (Black) London counterpart, has an easy lazy confidence, and the kind of good looks that might tempt the most angelic female to take off with him to Havana. In both shows, the Sky played his seduction scene a little bit as if he expected the PC police to rise out of the audience and arrest him for sexual harassment. But Alisun Armstrong as Sarah would insist that all charges be dropped. This woman has, along with her cool pure soprano, a smoldering repressed sensuality that is just waiting to respond to the effects of tropical moonlight and rum in "I've Never Been in Love Before". The costumer dropped the ball on one of the most delectable jokes in "Guys and Dolls", however. Miss Sarah throws off her jacket and unbuttons a button or two in "If I Were a Bell", and this is sexier than the Hot Box Girls' strip routine. But Armstrong's costume wouldn't cooperate and come off, so she had to disrobe herself internally instead -- which, incidentally, Armstrong did very well. Dared Wright as Sarah's uncle Arvide Abernathy implies a whole hidden history: Arvide took Sarah in when she was orphaned, and brought her up in the Salvation Army -- but has the strict puritanical Army, which was right for him, cut Sarah off from love and the fulfillment of her womanly nature? All this Wright does with the simple "More I Cannot Wish You".

Neil A. Casey is perfectly nice as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, although he could use few more decibels for "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat". Kamau M. Hashim as Benny Southstreet, and Zane Gray as Big Jule, the Chicago galoot who is packing heat and leaning on Nathan, supply solid support. Various colorful characters are supplied by the chorus, from the rubes and shysters of the opening mime to the celebratory gathering of friends at the wedding finale. The versatility and commitment of the chorus is the real heart of the production -- of any successful production. It is wonderful to see the depth of feeling and the nuanced individuality each performer brought to the cartoon sketches. One of the points underlined was in-group solidarity. A prime example is the instant empathy between Sarah and Adelaide, but bonding flourished throughout. Even though a chorus member might be doubling as both a member of the Salvation Army band and as one of the Broadway hustlers who are the object of the Army's missionary work, the actor carried the story of the character' s interactions with the other members of "their" group on stage at every entrance.

Again, like Eyre's production at the Olivier, Spiro Veloudos' "Guys and Dolls" is not a one-shot product, but part of a long-term process. The sense of shared history and performance vocabulary, and the mutual trust that the performers have built up the over years, pays off on stage. What you see in any given scene feels like the tip of the iceberg, beneath which is a hidden world of complex and interrelated lives: a community. Both productions achieved a substance beyond surface polish, because they were nourished not by narrow Broadway specialization, but by shared experience in the theatre ranging from Shakespeare to Mamet.

Of course, "Guys and Dolls" is socially indefensible. The Guys range from petty criminals to outright thugs. Their "honor" and reputation is a matter of being known as too dangerous to cross and of being able to make good on a marker. The Dolls -- strippers, mostly -- are either predators themselves, or pathetic heart-of-gold types who slave away at their sex work to support the expensive habits of their neglectful men. Making these people as attractive as they are on the Publick's stage might be dangerous to our collective health and welfare-- if they weren't so ridiculous, so human, so recognizably products of the American Dream, and so very much like even the most law-abiding rest of us.