Friday, June 11, 2004

 

Paper Mill rolls a seven with 'Guys and Dolls'

By William Westhoven, Special to the Daily Record

 

With due respect, "The Sopranos" are no longer the most entertaining wise guys in New Jersey. And while you may have to wait until 2006 to catch up with Tony, Sil and the boys at the Bada-Bing, there's a bunch of "Guys and Dolls" right now in Millburn eager to show you a good time.

 

Paper Mill Playhouse has capped its 2003-04 season with a dazzling production of Loesser and Loeb's delightful musical, which pays colorful and comic tribute to the legendary characters created by the late Damon Runyon. It's been a Broadway favorite since its debut in 1950, and the film version paired heavyweights Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando, but this production does the story justice by any measure.

 

A touch of irony opens the show as a scrim depicts a black-and-white Manhattan during the overture. It quickly gives way to an endless series of neon-bright streets inhabited by colorful characters in even more colorful costumes. Costume coordinator Randall Klein favors pinstripes and checks that clash so garishly they border on the psychedelic.

 

A spirited and energetic cast has a ball basking in the glow of his rainbow palette. The four principals are formidable. Michael Mastro is Nathan Detroit, who has to avoid his long-suffering fiancée, Adelaide (Tony winner Karen Ziemba), and a nosy detective (Steven Bogard) as he tries to find a safe location for his floating craps game. The seed money he needs may come from Sky Masterson (Robert Cuccioli, who starred in "The Sound of Music" a few months ago on this same stage), who bets Nathan that he can convince a beautiful backstreet missionary, Sarah (Kate Baldwin, of Broadway's "The Full Monty" and "Thoroughly Modern Millie"), to dine with him in Cuba.

 

Of course, Sky is that charming, and Nathan isn't that lucky, leading to an eye-popping scene in Havana where a tipsy Sarah dances in the streets (along with a fabulous chorus) and falls in love with Sky. Baldwin's golden soprano is worth the price of admission, and she shows a flair for comedy while stumbling through "If I Were a Bell."

 

When the ill-matched couple returns to the Big Apple, Sarah joins Adelaide as a doll in love with the wrong kind of guy. Adelaide, a sweet, gum-snapping dancer, leads a snappy floor show at the Hot Box nightclub, but in private, "Adelaide's Lament" is a funny and touching portrait of a girl who's got it bad for a lovable schnook.

 

The supporting cast gets plenty of time in the spotlight as well, particularly Eric Buckley, Robert DuSold and Robert Creighton respectively, as Nathan's gang of lovable louts. Creighton, a pint-sized bundle of energy with a nasal "New Yawk" inflection, gets the biggest cheers. He takes the lead for the final show-stopper, "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat," which packs nearly the entire cast into the tiny Save-A-Soul Missionary for a rousing, gospel-inspired prayer meeting.

 

Tony Cucci also stands out as Big Jule, the hulking mobster from Chicago who doesn't like to lose, and Tia Spiros as the lusty missionary General Cartwright.

 

In between the bounty of big production numbers, which includes a surreal subterranean set for "Luck Be a Lady Tonight," "Guys and Dolls" balances the scales with more subtle moments. Baldwin and Cuccioli blend nicely on "I'll Know" and "I've Never Been in Love Before," while Bob Dorian, as Sarah's grandfather, sings a tender "More I Cannot Wish You."

 

First-time Paper Mill director Stafford Arima has a lot to work with and a knack for letting each actor's strength show through. Choreographer Patricia Wilcox might have given Ziemba, one of Broadway's most celebrated dancers, more of a challenge, but Arima gives her room to develop her appealing character. Cuccioli is perfectly cast in a part that requires great range, while Mastro's Nathan is so hapless, you can't help but love him.

 

Of late, Paper Mill has attempted to slowly expand its reputation beyond that of a suburban theater capable of producing Broadway-caliber musical revivals. But this production is strong evidence of what it has always done best. And what a treat it is.