Guys and Dolls review
Martin Denton · June 12, 2004

Guys and Dolls is so darned good that even a production like this one—uneven and often times indifferent—can't help but be entertaining. The craft of the thing is a marvel: the book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows is solid and funny, and the score by Frank Loesser approaches genius—how many shows boast a collection of songs so authentically witty and heartfelt (and sometimes both at once)?

It's based on stories and characters created by Broadway scribe Damon Runyon; it's billed accurately as a musical fable, which is exactly right because the denizens of this vision of Manhattan never existed, no more than the boy who cried "wolf" or the fox who complained of sour grapes did. Yet their auras endure: we wish for a world of gamblers and cops and nightclub singers and mission dolls like the ones in this show.

At the center of Guys and Dolls is Nathan Detroit, an unassuming rascal who operates "the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York." Nathan has two problems at the moment: his girlfriend of fourteen years, Miss Adelaide ("the well-known fiancee"), is turning up the heat and demanding that they finally marry; and his clientele—a colorful passel of shady gents with monikers like Harry the Horse and Rusty Charlie—are demanding some action, even as the cops (led by Lt. Brannigan) are turning up the heat and making it impossible for Nathan to find a spot to hold the game. The likeliest candidate is Joey Biltmore's garage, but he needs a thousand dollars up front to clinch the deal, and Nathan doesn't have a thousand dollars.

Enter Sky Masterson, the smoothest and suavest gambler imaginable, a guy who will bet on anything as long as it's unlikely enough—such as whether or not Nathan knows the color of the necktie he has on. Nathan makes a $1,000 wager with Sky that he's sure he can't lose: that Sky will not be able to get a date with any particular doll of Nathan's choosing. The reason Nathan feels so confident is that he chooses Miss Sarah Brown—Sergeant Sarah Brown, of the Save-a-Soul Mission, a lovely but utterly unworldly missionary for whom the gamblers' lifestyle is anathema.

Will Sky win the bet? Will Sarah and Sky discover that they are, against the odds, soul mates? Will Nathan find a place to have the crap game? Will Big Jule, the ferocious and scary visiting mobster from Chicago who just keeps saying "Let's shoot crap" over and over again, get his wish? Will Miss Adelaide get over her psychosomatic long-term cold? Will Nathan and Adelaide get married?

Well, of course the answer to all these questions is yes; but you'll have a terrific time tracking all of these good-naturedly foolish storylines, thanks to the matchless charm and joyous effervescence of this show. And even though Stafford Arima's staging and particularly Patricia Wilcox's choreography feel more stilted and static than they ought to, Guys and Dolls' innate likeability keeps the proceedings from ever souring.

Robert Cuccioli (still perhaps best-known as the original star of Broadway's Jekyll and Hyde) is the standout among the leads, portraying Sky with a nice blend of vitality and insouciance that's very appealing. He sings the role gloriously: his renditions of the haunting "My Time of Day" and the heartfelt "I've Never Been in Love Before" are highlights, and his exuberant and energetic "Luck Be a Lady" gives the show its only real show-stopper. As his love interest, the sweet and innocent Sarah, Kate Baldwin has the requisite pluck and a pleasing soprano; she makes Sarah's charm song "If I Were a Bell" a real treat.

Less fortuitous is the casting of the other leading pair. Karen Ziemba, a great dancer, hardly gets an opportunity to show off that talent as Adelaide; she's also both less drop-dead gorgeous and less comically gifted than the role calls for—her performance of "Adelaide's Lament," one of the funniest songs ever created for the theatre, falls fairly flat. Even more problematic is Michael Mastro's Nathan, whose marble-mouthed fidgetiness suggests the late Buddy Hackett—hardly the type required. Robert Creighton, another fine dancer, is trapped in the role of Nathan's henchman Nicely-Nicely and mugs in it as if he were Mario Cantone; Tony Cucci is at sea as the Sheldon Leonard-esque Big Jule. But Bob Dorian is a charmer as Sarah's grandfather, Arvide Abernathy (though his singing of "More I Cannot Wish You," perhaps the show's loveliest song, is less assured than we'd like). And Tia Speros makes the most of what amounts to a cameo as Sarah's boss, General Cartwright, infusing her scenes with much-needed pep.

The sets are the same ones that Tony Walton created for the last Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls, a dozen years ago, and the costumes are clearly based on William Ivey Long's designs for the same production: they're gaudier and busier than they need to be. Indeed, that's the main problem with the production as a whole—broad, frenetic activity takes the place of positive energy and authenticity. It's a shame, but even a less-than-wonderful Guys and Dolls is still a good deal more fun than most of the fare written for the musical theatre in the last fifty years. Especially if you've not seen this show before, a trip to Paper Mill could well belong on your to-do list this summer!

copyright © 2003 The New York Theatre Experience, Inc. published in cooperation with the Paper Mill Theatre