Friday, July 2, 2004
By Terry Teachout
The Action’s in Jersey
I’d go a long way to see “Guys and Dolls.” In fact, it’s on my select list of musicals that never fail to give pleasure, even when performed by amateurs. Except for the misbegotten 1955 film version, in which Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra shamed themselves as Sky Masterson and Nathan Detroit, I’ve yet to see an impossibly bad production. Frank Loesser’s brassy score is a miracle of consistency – only “Annie Get Your Gun” has higher standards-to-filler ration – and Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling did a sharp-eared job of transferring the essence of Damon Runyon’s dis-is-Noo-Yawk short stories to the stage. (In fact, their version of Runyon is now better known than the real thing.) So when I heard that New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse was putting on “Guys and Dolls,” and that the adorable Karen Ziemba had been cast as Miss Adelaide, the Hapless Chorus Girl who’s been engaged to Nathan for 14 years, I knew I had to be there.
The Paper Mill Playhouse which has been doing business for upward of 60 years, is known for presenting solid musical-comedy revivals, among them a “Follies” so fine that it served as the basis for the first complete recording of Stephen Sondheim’s score. The productions usually include a sprinkling of big-leaguers, often in roles with which they’re not identified (Betty Buckley, for instance, played Mama Rose in Paper Mill’s 1998 “Gypsy”). The 1,200-seat proscenium-stage theater is comfortable and well-appointed, with a leafy courtyard that makes for agreeable intermissions, and Millburn, the small New Jersey town where the Paper Mill Playhouse is located, is easy to reach by car and train.
So what’s the catch? Beats me. This “Guys and Dolls,” which runs through July 18, is as surefire as a staked deck. To begin with, Paper Mill is using the gaudy sets designed by Tony Walton for the 1992 Broadway revival and subsequently retooled for that production’s national tour. No sooner does the curtain rise that you find yourself grinning happily at Mr. Walton’s Day-Glo cartoons of Times Square in the long-gone days of snap brim hats and evening papers. They instantaneously create a raffish mood that’s exactly right for a show described by its creators as “a musical fable of Broadway.”
To say that Ms. Ziemba fits in is the grossest of understatements. With her endearingly funny face a comprehensively dance worthy legs, she was born to play Adelaide, and “Guys and Dolls” makes far better use of her great talents than did her most recent Broadway outing, the stale “Never Gonna Dance.” I found Michael Mastro a notch too nebbishy as Nathan, but Robert Cuccioli and Kate Baldwin are pleasingly romantic as Sky, the dashing gambler in search of round-the-clock action, and Sarah Brown, the Salvation Army doll for whom he falls hard. Everyone else is good or better, and Robert Creighton stands out as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, the diminutive pepper pot who gets to sing “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” and the title song. (That’s my idea of a daily double.)
Stafford Arima and Patricia Wilcox, the director and choreographer, keep the plot chugging smoothly down the tracks, and though there isn’t anything surprising about their staging, the big ensemble numbers, especially “Luck Be a Lady” and “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” are full of snap and crackle. The only weak link at the matinee I attended was the pit orchestra, whose sour intonation was far below prevailing Broadway standards. Otherwise, I couldn’t find much of anything to gripe about. Even the grilled hot dog on which I snacked in the courtyard at intermission was just right.
Paper Mill’s next season kicks off with a Tina Landau-directed “Of Thee I Sing” (opening Sept. 8), followed by “She Loves Me” (Oct. 27). It’s been a decade since “She Loves Me” was last seen on Broadway, while “Of Thee I Sing”’s most recent New York revival dates from 1952. I recommend them both.
©The Wall Street Journal published in cooperation with the Paper Mill Theatre