Better than even money

Paper Mill's 'Guys and Dolls' worthy of musical's grand tradition

 

Monday, June 07, 2004

BY PETER FILICHIA

Star-Ledger Staff

 

So Smarty Jones didn't out to be a sure thing for gamblers. But the gamblers and their ladies in "Guys and Dolls" at the Paper Mill Playhouse are a sure thing for theatergoers.

 

While Birdstone prevented a Triple Crown at the Belmont, Stafford Arima's production in Millburn can claim a quadruple crown for its four terrific leads. How well they are enacting Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling's script and singing Frank Loesser's score -- each of them among the greatest achievements in the history of the Broadway musical.

 

First, there's Karen Ziemba as Miss Adelaide, the night-club star who's been engaged to crap-game entrepreneur Nathan Detroit for 14 years. Too many actresses have boop-boop-be-dooped the role into a cartoon character. While Ziemba displays an appropriate Bronx accent, she wisely doesn't overdo it, and creates an Adelaide who's a real human being about whom theatergoers can genuinely care. Indeed they will.

 

Too bad, though, that choreographer Patricia Wilcox didn't take advantage of Ziemba's dancing ability in such numbers as "A Bushel and a Peck" and "Take Back Your Mink." Ziemba is, after all, one of Broadway's premier dancers (and proved it in her Tony-winning stint in "Contact") and could have made her night-club numbers into show-stoppers. (Wilcox instead concentrated on her chorus numbers, which are sizzlers, thanks to 21 nimble dancers.)

 

Frequent Paper Mill star Robert Cuccioli is on hand as Sky Masterson, the gambler of gamblers who is surprised to find that he loves Salvation Army lass Sarah Brown. Cuccioli is sharp and suave, but layers those qualities with a brooding sensibility that shows he needs something more from life. How beautifully he sings "I'll Know" and "I've Never Been in Love Before," and a most heartfelt "My Time of Day." So by the time he reaches "Luck Be a Lady," the message is clear that luck smiled on this production when Cuccioli took the role.

 

No wonder, though, that Sky falls in love with this Sarah. Kate Baldwin is steely at first, showing Sarah at her most idealistic, before segueing into a lilting colleen's soprano that's one of the production's many high spots. But Sarah must melt after imbibing a bunch of Bacardis, and Baldwin loosens up amusingly to ring the bell on "If I Were a Bell."

 

Michael Mastro makes Nathan a lovable shnook who shows a fervent fear of commitment to marriage. He has a rubber-face worth of delightfully harried expressions to match the body language of a guy who's used to splitting quick when the cops come on the scene. It's a somewhat subtle performance, but an effective one.

 

Actually, the production wins a septuple crown, for it sports three other well-crafted performances. Robert Creighton does a stand-up rendition of "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat." Bob Dorian is an affectionate grandfather to Sarah in "More I Cannot Wish You." Robert DuSold is a snazzy Benny Southstreet, and would make a great Tony Soprano if that acclaimed series ever becomes a musical.

 

Until it does, there's always "Guys and Dolls." Truth to tell, this production owes a great deal to the much-acclaimed 1992 Broadway revival. Tony Walton's sets and splashy backdrops, William Ivey Long's gloriously garish costumes -- and a few of director Jerry Zaks' witty sight-gags -- have been recycled here. Still, theatergoers' love for this production should amount to at least three or four bushels and a peck.