Gamblers and chorus girls, New York’s underbelly in the ’20s and ’30s were the stuff of Damon Runyon’s punchy short stories that we mostly know today through the 1950 musical adaptation Guys and Dolls. Street-savvy, tough, hapless and heartwarming, his characters live on iconically in unforgettable show tunes.
Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows wrote the book, with its sentimental love-conquers-all domestication of the bad boys of Broadway (and yes, some dialogue is well worn). But Frank Loesser’s music and lyrics are perennially pleasing earworms that will have you humming for hours.
Especially after viewing the season opener of this musical at Auburn’s Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, blessed under a full moon with splendid direction and choreography by Richard J. Hinds. Before anything, let’s take a moment to comment on the superb design — starting with the ’50s-style rounded-off angled frame and a brown gauzy curtain lit to look like wood paneling. The red lettering of the show’s title is well textured — honestly, I could’ve enjoyed this setup alone for a while longer.
Enormous credit goes to Shoko Kambara’s expressive, multi-framed set and Dan Ozminkowski’s complementary lighting, which take us smoothly from bustling Manhattan streets to the shabby mission hall, with stopovers in night clubs, from the cutie-filled Hot Box to a pulsing Havana. Tiffany Howard’s colorful costumes honor those flashy cheap men’s suits as well as girls’ ultra-feminine dresses, both snaky and bouffant. And the chorines’ scanty attire somehow blends sweetness and sexuality.
Hinds is backed by a phenomenal design team, but his creative staging and fresh choreography (assisted by Lizz Picini) deserve no less. The fine ensemble dancing feels organic, even necessary, as if everyone caught up in the action’s just gotta dance. Luckily this happens often, but the dynamic Cuban club scene, from salsa to brawl, is especially thrilling.
Two romances proceed in tandem: Nathan Detroit’s trying to find a location for his floating crap game, with gambling guys following him hopefully around town, while Miss Adelaide, his chorus-star fiancée of 14 long years, is trying to get him to the altar. Meanwhile big-better Sky Masterson sails into town and finds himself tricked into trying to date straight-laced Christian missionary Sarah Brown.
The crap game ends up taking place in a sewer (another of Kambara’s impressive transformations) and yes, the inevitable unions do occur. (Though it’s hard to imagine our hero staying content in that Salvation Army uniform.) Michael Lomenda’s rich-voiced Sky Masterson is smoothly attractive, almost too tony for this crowd, and Traci Bair’s Sarah is sweetly winsome — and when she’s imbibed rum punches as milkshakes, she’s rapturous, swinging her skirts and singing a wonderful “If I Were a Bell.” It’s enough to make you book a plane ticket to Havana.
Delightful and personable as she is in the role, Bair has trouble with some high numbers, which seem beyond her range. The only other detraction in this otherwise bewitching production is Corinne Aquilina’s excellent orchestra being too loud, drowning out the amusing lyrics (even as far back as the 10th row).
Making a tall and ominous visit from Chicago’s mean streets is Wes Webb as Big Jule, who prefers playing with his own dice — on which the dots have been conveniently rubbed out (he “remembers” where they were). Jefferson Behan’s Nicely-Nicely is a bit tame, but his “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” is grand — his dreamed-up “conversion” moves the Save-a-Soul mission folks and sinners from their orderly rows to a joyous throng and lineup and back down into their seats again (more of Hinds’ visual magic).
But the high-rollers here are definitely that crazy couple, long-suffering Adelaide and her evasive beau. Broadway-featured Carlos Lopez brings an individual personality to this well-known role. Coping and evading, fixing and dealing, his Nathan is a mensch — and down on his knees to plead “Sue Me,” he’s irresistible. Not that Julie Cardia’s Adelaide, towering above him, wants to.
Comically brilliant, vocally wide-ranging and complicated, Cardia is a tribute to nasal showgirls and persistent girlfriends everywhere. Old-style and yet perennially young, Guys and Dolls is one musical you’ll enjoy “a bushel and a peck.” •
Guys and Dolls. Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser; book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows. Directed and choreographed by Richard J. Hinds. With Michael Lomenda, Traci Bair, Carlos Lopez, and Julie Cardia. At Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, Auburn, through June 28. Tickets call (315) 255-1785.
Barbara Adams, a regional arts journalist, teaches writing at Ithaca College.