Technicolor Gangsters: GUYS AND DOLLS

Photo by Paul Lyden

presented by North Shore Music Theatre

Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows
Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser
Based on “The Idyll of Sarah Brown” and characters by Damon Runyon
Directed by Mark Martino
Choreographed by Michael Lichtefeld

Presented through special arrangement with Music Theatre International

North Shore Music Theatre
Beverly, Ma
October 30th – November 11th, 2012

North Shore Music Theatre Facebook Page
October 30th – November 11th, 2012

(Beverly) It’s easy to know from the opening sequence whether a production of the musical Guys and Dolls is going to hit on all cylinders or fall flat. The intro and music is supposed to paint a picture of the vibrant and surprisingly ordered chaos of New York City in the roaring 20’s, or at least the New York City that ferments in the imagination of the show’s authors, Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows. It’s a metropolis awash with crime, as an apple is filched from a vendor and a pocket gets picked within the first two minutes of stage time, but it’s genial and high-energy crime, so much so that even cops simply shake their heads at the crooks’ peccadillos.

From the first note of the opening number, musical writer Frank Loesser echoes Swerling and Burrows’ vision of the happy and crooked city with a cacophony of an opening number, “Fugue for Tinhorns”. In this sweet and weird song, three gamblers clamber over each other to proclaim why they have the inside track on a horse race, and none of the three listen to each other, each happily wrapped up in the fantasy of winnings. With the final harmonic dissonance of this first song, the air goes out of many a production.

Not so with the North Shore Music Theatre’s vibrant and energetic production of this well-worn classic. From the first high-stepping moments of choreography, this production grabs hold of your lapels and won’t let you leave the party. North Shore’s barnstorming staging of this play succeeds because the cast and crew never once rest on the laurels of the show; they know they still have to sell it. Because of their effort, you feel transported to the 1950 Broadway premiere of this flashy show at a time when American musical theater was busting out into something big.

The plot revolves around the misadventures of good-natured gambling MC Nathan Detroit (Jonathan Hammond) as he tries to find a location for the longest-running floating crap game in the city while New York’s finest are bringing the heat. Detroit finds a location, but needs upfront money to rent it, so he tricks
Sky Masterson (Kevin Vortmann), a compulsive gambler with supernatural resolve, into a bet: Sky must romance a goody-two-shoes, Sarah Brown (Kelly McCormick), who is slumming in the neighborhood to save souls for the Salvation Army. While this transpires, Detroit desperately tries to maintain the status quo
and a 14-year engagement to his girlfriend Miss Adelaide (Mylinda Hull), the featured dancer at a risqué cabaret, but she has reached the breaking point and needs wedding bells. It’s a battle of wills to see who will change first in this war of the sexes.

Overall, the performances breathe new life into what could easily have become caricatures of characters. Hammond leads with his chin and his heart as Detroit, and it’s a treat to see him physically twist himself into a pretzel to try and balance the competing facets of his life. Hull matches him beat for beat with a perfectly- timed off-kilter performance of Adelaide, a woman who first appears in over her head intellectually, but who will fight like a ferret when backed into a corner. Watching Detroit and Adelaide spar is to be reminded how love is a secret language, and couplehood a private madness.

It has always felt like the second pairing between the sanctimonious Sarah and the steely Sky needs a bit of work. The final script of this show was actually a composite of two different takes on the play, and the strings seem to show between the romantic interludes of this couple. McCormick turns in a fine performance despite the fact that her character lacks a full emotional arc in the script; she deftly navigates Sarah Brown through some hairpin turns of character development. Vortmann doesn’t fare as well, but he’s in great company, as even Marlon Brando at his peak failed to do more than purse his lips as Sky in the movie adaptation of this play. Both Brando and Vortmann seem to be wrestling with the same problem: how do you distinguish your character in this gangster romp when even

the bit characters play it to the hilt? Vortmann makes Sky a straight man, but we fail to see the obsessive need to win that Sky would need to make a name for himself as a world-class gambler until it’s called for in the second act. He’s largely subsumed among the wonderful performances of the secondary players in
this production, when even the police detective (Michael Scott) has a jaw and a disposition so square that the audience roots for him in the end.

A wisely minimal set allows costume coordinator Paula Peasley-Ninestein to run riot with wardrobe, and she nails it by capturing the Technicolor madness of the Zoot Suit era. Picture the almost nightmarish colors employed in the cartoon classic Donald in Mathmagic Land and you get a feel with how eye-popping and sharp these suits can be against a black background. Peasley-Ninestein’s design
infuses the guys with a peacock-y aura, and there’s a feeling that slipping on such a suit must elevate the game of any actor. The dolls, in contrast, are given solid colors to work with which don’t fade into the background; rather they seem to ground the play. The color scheme accentuates the idea that while the guys may act like they know the score, the dolls are going to come out on top. And just like
the crime victims who get their pockets picked on the streets of this imagined Big Apple, no one really minds the con.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider making a donation. Every cent earned goes towards the upkeep and continuation of the New England Theatre Geek.
Become a patron at Patreon!

Comments are closed.