CEDAR CITY — For readers’ musical theatre needs, I’ve got the horse right here, and it’s the Utah Shakespeare Festival production of Guys and Dolls.
In classical musical comedy fashion, Guys and Dolls tells the story of two romantic couples. Gangster Nathan Detroit has problems in his professional and private life. Professionally, he needs to find a place to host his illegal craps game. Personally, his fiancée of 14 years, Adelaide, is pressuring him to get married. To raise the money to rent a location for his craps game, Nathan places a bet with master gambler Sky Masterson that the latter cannot take missionary Sarah Brown to Havana on a date. Conflict develops when Adelaide grows resentful of Nathan’s neglect and when Sarah feels used—even as Sky really falls in love with her.
The triumph of this production lies in its choreography, created by Christine Rowan. I do not recall the last time I saw so many dance styles in the same production. Rowan accompanied Frank Loesser‘s score with modern, ballet, jazz, swing, Latin, and traditional musical theatre dance steps. The result is surprisingly coherent movement style that had plenty of little treats for even experienced musical theatre fans. Rowan’s strongest work was in “The Crapshooter’s Ballet” and “Havana,” but the way she built tension and movement into “Luck Be a Lady” was also beneficial to the song (which often has stagnant staging).
Director Peter Rothstein also slipped little innovative jewels into the show, most noticeably in the use of telephones in “Fugue for Tinhorns” and the creation of a bustling New York City street on stage at several moments in the play. But generally, Rothstein did what a director of a musical should do: focus attention on important moments, stage scenes sensibly, and ensure that the pacing of the dialogue supported the score. The end-product is a respectable, well-oiled show, but not a creative masterpiece.
Quinn Mattfeld was an exceptionally funny Nathan Detroit, especially in the moments when Nathan was weaseling out of marring Adelaide. Much of the comic dialogue in Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows‘s script is in the style of an old vaudeville shtick, yet Mattfeld can still mine it for laughs. He also had subtle physical mannerisms that provided additional laughs, a technique that Mattfeld has successfully used as Black Stache in Peter and the Starcatcher and as Robert in Boeing Boeing. But Mattfeld is too good at piling on the laughs with his body language, and he consequentially stole attention from his co-stars. Rothstein should have reined Mattfeld in a little bit more. Yes, it would give the show a few less laughs, but the other characters would get the attention they deserve.
Assisting with the comedy was Melinda Parrett. She plays the ditzy Adelaide with an endearing innocence that never felt like a flat stereotype. Parrett’s passion in “Adelaide’s Lament” was superb, and she found the right balance of pathos and comedy; the song was just funny enough for me to laugh, yet I still felt sorry for Adelaide as she wallowed in her emotional pain. Parrett’s only downfall is that she seems too old for the role. Though Adelaide is not an ingénue (her job as a dancer for men in the Hot Box club makes her too worldly wise and knowledgeable), she is still young enough to want to have children. Yet, for some scenes age was irrelevant. A prime example of this was “Marry the Man Today,” which was a delightful powerhouse number as Adelaide and Sarah figured out how to solve their relationship problems.
Another miscast actor was James Newcomb as Big Jule, a character whose mere physical presence is supposed to intimidate the other gangsters. Yet, Newcomb seemed almost grandfatherly and only flirted with intimidation when he pulled a gun on Nathan. I think that the Festival artistic staff was aiming for irony in casting Newcomb, but the result was a creative misstep.
On the other hand, Alexandra Zorn was a sheer delight as Sarah Brown. Instead of making Sarah a straightlaced Puritan, Zorn ensured that Sarah had a tender side from the beginning. This is a critical ingredient to making the blossoming romance between Sarah and Sky believable. But one of Zorn’s greatest assets is her soprano voice, which is disproportionately powerful compared to her petite frame. As a result, Zorn made “I’ll Know” unexpectedly memorable. Brian Vaughn was an appropriate foil for Zorn, and his earnest line deliveries (e.g., “I cannot welch on a marker.”) showed that Sky was a man with a strong ethical code—undoubtedly part of what attracted Sarah to Sky. Vaughn was also wise in avoiding the musical theatre convention of love at first sight; his coy demeanor added to the tension of the play.
Guys and Dolls is known for costumes as colorful and interesting as the show’s characters, and costume designer K. L. Alberts did not disappoint. The plaid and striped gangster suits were paired with brightly accents that were so detailed that even the ribbon around the men’s fedoras matched each character’s clothes. Kirk Bookman‘s lighting designs provided a great splash of color to the show’s backdrop, and the gradual changes often mirrored the changes of mood in the show.
It may seem odd to produce Guys and Dolls in repertory with Romeo and Juliet or As You Like It. But it actually makes total sense. Like a good Shakespearean comedy, Guys and Dolls follows the ups and downs of romantic couples as they obstacles to their love. The musical also has lots of playful dialogue that—in the hands of actors with deep classical training—becomes reminiscent of Much Ado About Nothing or Twelfth Night. Therefore, Guys and Dolls is the perfect fit for the Utah Shakespeare Festival and for readers’ summer theatre-going schedule.