The orchestra plays peppy music as the lights come up on a bustling early 1950s New York City street scene with twinkling neon signs and some decidedly shady looking characters mixing with naïve tourists and beleaguered cops. You’ve found your way to “Runyonland”, the opening sequence of one of America’s most perennially popular musicals, Guys & Dolls. The Champaign Urbana Theatre Company’s production of this classic show will be running at the Harold and Jean Miner Theatre at Parkland College through August 9th.
Guys & Dolls, directed here by John Stuff, primarily tells the story of two couples: Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide and Sky Masterson and Sarah Brown.
While a bit young for the part (one wonders if he proposed to Miss Adelaide in grade school), Trey Ball brings good comic energy to the role of Nathan, and Jenny Gleason sparkles as Miss Adelaide in both her playful burlesque numbers at the “Hot Box” club and her comic songs lamenting the state of her stalled romance. Though the two spend most of the show bickering, Ball and Gleason succeed in keeping both characters sympathetic enough that the audience will be rooting for their eventual reconciliation.
Meanwhile, big-time gambler “Sky” Masterson (Jeff Grider), nicknamed for the high stakes he favors, bets Nathan that Sky can convince the next woman he sees to come with him to Havana, a bet that becomes much more challenging when that “next woman” turns out to be straitlaced Sergeant Sarah Brown (Lydia Dunmyer) of the local “Save-A-Soul Mission”. When Sky asks her what sort of man she might fall in love with, she immediately responds emphatically, “He will NOT be a gambler.”
This is the plotline that provides the show with most of its heart, and Grider and Dunmyer have believable romantic chemistry during their scenes together. Guys & Dolls is a show that depends on an energetic and enthusiastic ensemble to support the leads’ performances, and this production fully delivers on that front. You can tell the whole cast is having fun onstage and their joy is often infectious. There are several big dance numbers that come together well, from the sultry choreography of the Havana trip to the gamblers’ exuberant performance of “The Crapshooters’ Ballet” once they finally get to their long-anticipated gambling session.
There are also a few solos deserving special mention: Tom Cravens, playing Sarah’s doting grandfather, sings a sweetly tender “More I Cannot Wish You” to Sarah that’s a definite second act highlight. Later on, Jaise Allen, playing gambler Nicely-Nicely Johnson, fully throws himself into a spirited rendition of the revival-style showstopper “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” that’s pretty much guaranteed to make the audience want to get up and dance along. (It was also one of the few times during the almost three hour show when I wished something would go on much, much longer than it did.)
The set, inspired by the set from CUTC’s 1994 production, works well and allows for fairly seamless transitions between most scenes, while the colorful costumes (especially the few bright gem-toned zoot suits thrown into the gamblers’ wardrobes) add to the ebullient feel of the show. The orchestra, conducted by Aaron Kaplan, did an exceptional job and greatly assisted with maintaining high energy levels throughout the evening.
If you’re completely new to Guys & Dolls, you should be advised that its gender roles definitely reflect the period the musical was written in and a few aspects of the plot feel a bit dated for that reason. Overall, however, the show has aged very well and you can easily tell why it’s continued to be such a popular choice for theatre companies. The Frank Loesser-penned songs are incredibly catchy and the jokes come fast and furious. Musical theatre fans or people just looking for a fun way to spend a hot summer evening or afternoon indoors will enjoy this lively production.
Guys and Dolls plays at 7:30 p.m. August 6-8 and at a 2:30 matinee on Sunday August 9th. Tickets are $14 ($12 for Senior/Student, $8 for youth) and may be ordered online up to three hours before the performance or purchased at the theatre box office.
Photographs by Scott Wells.