Like Adelaide, the nightclub entertainer who provides the sweet, klutzy emotional center of "Guys and Dolls," theatergoers are used to thwarted hopes.
Adelaide (Lauren Graham) has been engaged to Nathan Detroit (Oliver Platt), a two-bit shyster running a crap game around Times Square, for 14 years.
You'd think she'd have realized he's just not that into her by now, but Adelaide's an eternal optimist. And like her, we keep falling for those charming Broadway snake-oil peddlers.
At the Nederlander Theatre, where Des McAnuff's glitzy revival of the 1950 classic opened last night, they dazzle us with their handsome costumes and their clever projections (by Paul Tazewell and Dustin O'Neill). They serenade us with an 18-piece orchestra firing on all cylinders. We start believing: This time, it's really going to happen! But whereas Adelaide eventually gets her ring, we're left at the altar once again, wondering how things went wrong.
This production of Frank Loesser's masterpiece is a puzzle, all right: How can something so zippy be so tedious? As his megahit "Jersey Boys" showed, McAnuff is great at keeping things moving. He smoothly segues from Nathan and Adelaide's scenes to the show's other star-crossed couple, gambler Sky Masterson (Craig Bierko) and Save-a-Soul do-gooder Sarah Brown (Kate Jennings Grant), and makes colorful use of the flashy showgirls and small-time crooks Damon Runyon, on whose stories the book is based, so vividly brought to life.
But McAnuff just can't ratchet up the energy at crucial times, a problem that's particularly glaring since "Guys and Dolls" is packed with fantastic songs.
Typically, when Mary Testa's Gen. Cartwright hijacks "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat," her rude 10-second eruption slaps the audience awake and into spontaneous applause.
If only the central foursome could deliver this kind of shame less old- school stage craft. Part of the blame must lay with McAnuff - did he give his cast any direction at all? Bierko projects little outside of a steak-eating grin. He's the best singer of the lot, but he displays little charisma and even less chemistry with Grant, whose Sarah is both too much and not enough. From the very beginning, something hot is clearly smoldering under that ramrod-straight posture; yet when Bacardi helps the missionary loosen her position, Grant feels too restrained.
Platt and Graham have inherited roles famously held by Nathan Lane and Faith Prince in the '92 hit revival. For his part, Platt seems so afraid to be compared to Lane that he holds back on the funny, leaving a husk of a character. Runyon's people are often described as larger than life; this Nathan Detroit is smaller.
Graham, best known as the elder Gilmore Girl on TV, breaks from her predecessor's mold as well, but this time the result is at least . . . interesting.
Vulnerable rather than purely comic, she makes us root for the actress and the character - even though she sings tentatively, moves stiffly and delivers oddly stilted line readings.
The performance is all the more endearing for being so baffling; to paraphrase Spinal Tap's David St. Hubbins, it's such a fine line between inept and memorable. Like Nellie McKay's downright bizarre Polly in the wretched 2006 revival of "Threepenny Opera," Graham's Adelaide sure makes an impression.
For better or for worse, you'll remember her, which can't be said of this snoozy production.
Certain words, in certain contexts, are best left unspoken. In Des McAnuff’s uninspired new revival of “Guys and Dolls” at the Nederlander Theater that word happens to be “chemistry.” It is dropped — with a thud and a shatter — and hovers for the rest of the evening like a neon-lighted reproach.
“Chemistry?” says Sarah Brown (Kate Jennings Grant), the rigid Salvation Army officer, with a dropped jaw and you’ve-gotta-be-kidding italics. She has just been told, by the handsome gambler Sky Masterson (Craig Bierko), that love is something that can’t be planned or anticipated. Miss Brown is having none of this radical concept.
Oh, Sarah, Sarah, I do so know where you’re coming from. Chemistry is something you don’t understand until you experience it, with all the attendant happy chills and dizziness. And, honey, there ain’t no chemistry in your show: not between the two pairs of leading lovers, or between the singers and their songs, or the actors and their parts.
Whatever special substance it is that makes old shows feel new-born and artificial musicals ring truer than life, this “Guys and Dolls” left it behind in the laboratory. Instead this production, which opened Sunday and also stars Oliver Platt and Lauren Graham, provides a valuable lesson in the importance of chemistry by demonstrating what can happen without it — even to a show as seemingly foolproof as “Guys and Dolls.” With grade-A songs by Frank Loesser and a book by Abe Burrows (who officially shares credit with Jo Swerling), this 1950 classic is widely regarded as the paradigm for a well-made musical comedy. (It is regularly revived, most recently on Broadway in 1992, and the 1955 film, starring Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando, often shows up on television.)
It’s not as if Mr. McAnuff and company have failed to provide most of the traditional ingredients for a rousing production of “Guys and Dolls,” adapted from Damon Runyon’s stories about wise-guy gamblers in love along the Main Stem of Manhattan. Conspicuously at hand are those loud, eye-searing suits, symphonies in bright plaids and checks (designed by Paul Tazewell); a neon-sign-splashed set (by Robert Brill, with lighting by Howell Binkley and video design by Dustin O’Neill) that summons a few busy blocks of Midtown in the 1930s, used by the characters as office, living room and trysting place; and of course a skilled orchestra to capture the brassy bliss of Loesser’s eternally infectious score.
Mr. McAnuff, who directed the Broadway smash “Jersey Boys,” has also clearly worked hard at creating a sense of unending urban flux. He has extended the playing area to include what is normally the orchestra pit and some box seats, so that ensemble members keep materializing not just from the wings but from below and above eye level too. And he and his choreographer, Sergio Trujillo, sure keep these folks in motion: running, bumping and grinding, back-flipping, somersaulting.
How bizarre, then, that the show feels so static, as if paralyzed by self-consciousness. Nearly all the performers — from stars to chorus — approach their roles eagerly but diffidently, as if they would like to get to know the characters they play but are afraid of being rejected. Such tentativeness creates the impression of an entire cast of understudies, who have the technical qualifications for their parts but no natural affinity.
This means that the sui generis style of communication known as Runyonese — a mix of courtly formality, tough-guy vernacular and pretzel-shape sentences — is spoken here as if it were a second language, dotted with implicit question marks that seem to ask, “Am I getting this right?” (Nathan Detroit’s key henchmen, played by Tituss Burgess and Steve Rosen, have such disconcertingly different deliveries of this lingo, it’s as if they’ve been spliced into the same frame from movies of different periods.)
A similar uncertainty pervades the comic timing, and you can sense even hard-core Broadway pros like Mary Testa (in a small part as a Salvation Army general) trying on different inflections and rhythms in the course of a single bit of dialogue. As Nathan, an anxious entrepreneur of craps games, Mr. Platt seems uncomfortable in ways that go beyond his truth-averse character’s fears of being found out by the law or by his fiancée of 14 years, the wistful stripper Miss Adelaide (Ms. Graham).
Though he has shown himself to be a wonderful and surprising actor onstage (“Shining City”) and television (“Huff,” “The West Wing”), Mr. Platt never finds a sustained pattern of idiosyncrasies that would let him connect with Nathan (and the audience). His singing voice is agreeable, small but smooth, but it does not define a character. His hands often glued to the sides of his jacket, he has the stricken, nauseated expression of someone terrified of being fingered as an impostor.
A similar stiffness inhibits all the major performances. As Miss Adelaide, Ms. Graham (of “Gilmore Girls” on television) has a stentorian, on-key singing voice and an amiable presence. But when she delivers the fabled “Adelaide’s Lament,” standing straight up like a school valedictorian, it’s devoid of original poi-son-ality. Ms. Grant, an able vocalist with great cheekbones, exudes a take-charge competence and confidence that are at odds with the vulnerability of the virginal Sarah.
As Sky the heartbreaker, Mr. Bierko (who starred in the 2000 revival of “The Music Man”) gives the smoothest performance, but it’s also bland. Like the others he sometimes seems to disappear while you’re watching him. And all the stars are undercut by staging that has them crooning love duets in rigid profile, as if they were singing daguerreotypes.
This is especially disheartening, since few musicals provide the chances afforded by “Guys and Dolls” for performers to create (and reinvent) big and full characters, eye-catching cartoons that turn out to have human hearts. Much of what made Jerry Zaks’s 1992 revival so heavenly was the quirky credibility of its stars, especially Faith Prince, who found the key to Miss Adelaide as much in the stripper’s bone-deep tiredness as in her celebrated sniffles and coughs.
Though this production mostly sticks to the original script, it has introduced one significant addition. That’s the silent presence of Damon Runyon himself (Raymond Del Barrio), who appears at the show’s beginning and end at his typewriter, and periodically pops up to observe the folks onstage. There is even a danced prologue called “Runyonland,” with the writer overseeing a Mack Sennett-style series of cops, robbers and lovers chasing one another.
This interpolated material has the effect of putting a distancing frame around everything that follows. The emphasis is on concept over character, a fatal mistake with “Guys and Dolls.” No wonder everybody looks so ill at ease. They’ve been straitjacketed by quotation marks.
Imagine having dinner in a fabulous restaurant with two couples. One pair is delightfully witty and has sizzling chemistry; the other two seem so awkward that it's almost painful to be with them.
That's something akin to the uneven, frustrating experience offered by the new revival of Guys and Dolls (* * ½ out of four) that opened Sunday at the Nederlander Theatre.
In fairness to the awkward couple — stars Oliver Platt and Lauren Graham — their characters, bumbling gambler Nathan Detroit and his long-suffering squeeze Miss Adelaide, aren't elegant types. But like the other colorful figures in Frank Loesser's glorious adaptation of Damon Runyon's Prohibition-era urban tales, they can and must be played with great style. Skeptics need only refer to Frank Sinatra and Vivian Blaine in the film version — or Nathan Lane and Faith Prince in the last Broadway revival, in 1992.
Platt has done intriguing work on stage and screen, but superior acting ability doesn't necessarily translate to a flair for musical comedy — something Sinatra's co-star Marlon Brando proved in the role of Nathan's smoother cohort Sky Masterson.
It takes great skill to play a man with no pizzazz with pizzazz; Platt, who moves clumsily — as if uncomfortable with his height and girth — and whose New Yawk accent is tentative at best, doesn't fill the bill as Nathan Detroit.
Graham, despite her beauty, proves equally bereft of physical and vocal grace. Her Adelaide is merely a dumb blonde, sputtering her lines, shouting her songs and stumbling through her dance numbers. Her belting lacks the rhythmic intuition that Loesser's lush, swinging score requires. More crucially, the Gilmore Girls actress conveys none of the pluck or pathos that makes us care about this small-time showgirl who longs to be a respectable housewife.
What a shame, because the other romantic leads could not be better.
Craig Bierko's Sky is robust and dangerously sexy, but not so slick that we can't laugh at him or recognize the vulnerability and decency behind his easy swagger. As Sarah Brown, the repressed missionary whom Sky pursues on a bet, Kate Jennings Grant is a revelation, juggling the unruffled poise of an old-school movie heroine with a loosey-goosey sass and exquisite comic timing.
Sadly, Sky and Sarah aren't the focus for more than a couple of scenes at a time. It doesn't help that the supporting cast is inconsistent, or that Des McAnuff's direction can suffer from acute cuteness. Some of Sky and Nathan's colleagues seem more like suburban dads than lovable street types. Mary Testa, otherwise winningly droll as a Salvation Army general, is forced to interrupt Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat with a tacky mock-diva solo.
Given such transgressions, this Guys and Dolls never stays afloat long enough to transport us.
The opening image in Des McAnuff's strangulated revival of "Guys and Dolls" is of Damon Runyon pounding his typewriter, framing the production unequivocally in a fictional world. But the unintended effect has been to process the author's richly slangy, flavorful valentine to a vanished New York demimonde of hustlers, gamblers, floozies and gangsters into a cartoon of manufactured colors. Fronted by four likable leads whose collective charisma never rises above medium wattage, the production sucks the personality out of an American musical-theater classic. The consolation is that even in this misconceived presentation, the show itself is too good not to be at least minimally entertaining.
The problem with that fallback is that most regular theatergoers still have vivid memories of superior productions: Jerry Zaks' smash 1992 Broadway revival with Nathan Lane and Faith Prince as eternally engaged Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide; Richard Eyre's long-running 1982 National Theater staging, with Bob Hoskins and Julia McKenzie; Michael Grandage's 2005 West End run, starring Ewan McGregor and Jane Krakowski. Plans to bring the latter production to Broadway fell apart, opening the door to McAnuff's unrelated rethink.
Even on its own terms, something is wrong here. The production is both gaudy and anemic, overdesigned and underdirected. This musical should delight on the strengths of Frank Loesser's sparkling score, blessed with some of the cleverest, quippiest lyrics in musical history. Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling's book is no less an asset, lovingly evoking the seedy glamour of Times Square decades before it became a commercialized tourist mecca, while expertly balancing the stories of four lead characters with conflicting missions. Yet somehow, despite dynamite material and talented performers, the production rarely fires on all cylinders.
A central obstacle is the design concept. As he showed in "Jersey Boys" and "The Farnsworth Invention," McAnuff loves his scaffolding. Working with designer Robert Brill, he has crowded the Nederlander stage with signage, structural beams and other setpieces that do battle with Dustin O'Neill's busy blur of projections, depicting random cityscape elements and location details. But this combo of digital and traditional sets has been integrated more seamlessly and with greater precision even in "The Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular."
The fussy video input constantly pulls focus, overwhelming the actors and snuffing out both the human drama and the comedy. It's a nocturnal playground that's all technology, no magic.
Paul Tazewell's costumes are similarly overworked, particularly the riot of pinstripes and plaids on the men. It's hard for anyone to etch a character while shouting to be heard over their outfit, and it's to the credit of supporting players like Steve Rosen, Jim Walton and Glenn Fleshler that they capture some of the required gritty, Runyonesque color. But the four principal characters never quite become three-dimensional.
There's plenty going on in Burrows and Swerling's story. Suave gambler Sky Masterson (Craig Bierko) bets he can seduce straitlaced Salvation Army zealot Sarah Brown (Kate Jennings Grant), whisking her off by plane to dinner in Cuba. Sarah is struggling to usher enough sinners across the threshold to keep the Save-a-Soul Mission open. Those sinners are too busy planning for a floating crap game for which amiable shyster Nathan Detroit (Oliver Platt) is desperately seeking a safe location. Meanwhile, Nathan's fiancee of 14 years, burlesque headliner Adelaide (Lauren Graham), has a permanent psychosomatic cold due to the absence of a ring on her finger.
While nobody is exactly digging deep to erase the memory of past interpreters, the dolls make more of an impression than the guys. Grant has an appealing prim determination, her willowy body dissolving into gangly disorder after drinking one dulce de leche too many in Havana. And while she's stuck in a performance built around a trashy Rhode Island accent, Graham, late of "Gilmore Girls," puts her own daffy comic spin on her line readings. Her numbers are fun, if not the uproarious treats they can be with a truly outstanding Adelaide. But she finds the sweetness and poignancy in this sad romantic stalwart with her cherished fantasy of domestic bliss, always willing to give her commitment-phobic man one more chance.
Platt is a natural deadpan funnyman, but his constipated scowl becomes a little one-note, and Bierko's singing is more confident than the bland stamp he otherwise puts on the show's conventional leading-man role. While the other principals have solid rather than stellar vocal chops, the singing is polished throughout; music director Ted Sperling has done a fine job on vocal arrangements, particularly some barbershop harmonizing for the men.
It's significant that none of the four leads shows any particular grace or ease when moving to music. However, with help from choreographer Sergio Trujillo, McAnuff brings more life to the dance numbers than the sleepy book scenes. The "Havana" interlude has plenty of Latin sizzle, while below ground in a New York sewer, "The Crapshooter's Dance" brings a touch of the tense, masculine energy of vintage Jerome Robbins.
The designated showstopper in any “Guys and Dolls” production is Nicely-Nicely Johnson’s faux-revival meeting number “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” usually performed by a roly-poly actor in the Stubby Kaye mode, suddenly overcome with religious spirit. The choice of thesp Tituss Burgess, adopting another accent of weirdly indeterminate ethnicity after “The Little Mermaid,” for this number is a departure from that tradition, but his high-energy performance certainly whips up the crowd. As the bossy Salvation Army general, Mary Testa layers on some scene-stealing touches, all but chewing the projections.
It's hard to know McAnuff's motivation for shifting the setting from its original time, circa 1950, to the 1930s, when Runyon was writing. In any case, the move adds nothing; nor does the inclusion of the author onstage. There's an overriding flatness to what should be a sensational high-roller affair, sparking to life occasionally only to sag again under the strain. And for all the attention to Manhattan skyscrapers, subway trains, diners, tenements, underground lairs and alleyways, a sense of place is absent from this take on a quintessential New York story.