The late Damon Runyon is known best as a writer and author of many short stories which conjure up images of brightly garbed Broadway characters best known by descriptive nicknames and a distinctive manner of speech.
Runyon was a newspaper reporter and award-winning sports writer whose colorful creations remain unique. These are the stories and personalities which supplied the basis for one of the theater’s best-loved and most frequently produced musical comedies, ‘Guys and Dolls.”
It debuted on Broadway in 1951 and saw three successful revivals — 1976, 1994 and 2005 — plus unending productions in every regional and civic theater across the country. Subitled “A Musical Fable of Broadway,” it is now on stage at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, MI..
With the bright lights of Broadway and the elusive rumblings of “The Oldest Established (Permanent Floating Crap Game in New York)” underscoring the action, it is filled with delightfully off-center guys (gamblers and police) and dolls (nightclub entertainers and mission workers), each of whom pursues his/her ambitions with admirable determination.
The book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows and music and lyrics by Frank Loesser are incredibly well tuned in to the Runyonesque vibe, dialogue, lyric and character-wise.
With a cast of characters that includes Sky Masterson (Eric Parker), Nathan Detroit (Robin Haynes), Harry the Horse (John Jay Espino), Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Patrick Hunter), Benny Southstreet (Sam Massey), Rusty Charlie (Jamey Grisham) and Big Jule (Charlie King), the plot revolves around Nathan’s need for $1,000 to secure a location for his floating crap game, and on Sister Sarah Brown’s (Hannah Eakin) need to produce a goodly number of “genuine sinners” for her midnight prayer meeting at the Save-A-Soul Mission..
To insure the former, Nathan bets Sky that he cannot take Sister Sarah to dinner. To insure the latter, she agrees to go, not knowing that the dinner will be in Havana.
Meanwhile, Nathan is dealing with his lack of location (for the game) and his 14-year engagement to Miss Adelaide (Brooke Evans), headliner at the Hot Box nightclub. She is dealing with a 14-year psychosomatic head cold and has already assured her mother they are married, with a large number of children.
Add to this a colorful array of Runyon’s Broadway characters all “lookin’ for action” in Nathan’s crap game and a police lieutenant Brannigan (Matt Ruehlman) determined to shut it down and you have a wonderfully off-beat mix, all set to the marvelous Loesser score.
The primary problem here, on opening night at least, was the obvious lack of rehearsal time for the too-loud, too-off key, mostly-brass orchestra. From the opening notes of the overture, familiarly known as “post time,” it was obvious this was going to be a bumpy ride. And it didn’t get any better.
In any production, the first step to a successful endgame is casting, matching the right actor with the right role as closely as possible. Even when the performer is good, he/she may not be the right one for a particular part.
The mis-matching was evident here. There was no connection between Sky and Sarah, who oversang all her solo work, and their romantic involvement was embarrassing at best. Most of the gamblers took mugging to a new level, forgetting these are written as characters not caricatures.
One successful pairing is that of Adelaide and Nathan who happily remembered that less is more and managed a definitely sweet aura even in their hilariously love me/love me not duet “Sue Me.” Evans has the most familiar song, “Adelaide’s Lament,” which she handled well, sneezes and all, while Haynes’ frequently frantic Nathan always walked the fine line between real and cartoonish with appreciated ease..
Director Hans Friedrichs, who also played Sarah’s uncle Arvide Abernathy, probably should have cast a stronger “sheep’s eye” on the entire flock.
All in all, however, it’s difficult to keep a good classic down and most of the audience seemed to be having a good time.
“GUYS AND DOLLS” plays through July 3 in the theater on M-96 between Galesburg and Augusta, MI. For performance times and reservations, call (269) 731-4121 or visit www.barntheatreschool.org