12 February 2009

A Few Things About GUYS & DOLLS

I caught a preview of the new GUYS & DOLLS last night. I don't really want to write a review because (a) it's in previews and (b) I'm not all that interested in writing reviews. However--SPOILER ALERT--I will bring to light some of the points of interest of this production.

1) GUYS & DOLLS is a great show--This isn't a spoiler, or even news, but it is something that bears repeating. The book is funny, the characters sharp, strong and memorable with clear objectives, character arcs, etc. It's one of those things you look at in Writing a Musical Class, or Acting in a Musical Class. And the score is fan-fucking-tastic. So, in general, if moderately competent people say most of the words right, and sing most of the notes right, you will have a decent evening on your hands.

2) Lauren Graham Can Sing--There was a definite hush over the audience when Laruen "Gilmore Girls" Graham first took to the mic to sing "I Love You a Bushel and a Peck"....and a sigh of relief when it was fine. In general she is an okay Adelaide. However, though it may sound cruel to say she doesn't have a musical theater bone in her body, that seems to literally be the case. Her comic timing is fine, as is her singing. But Ms. Graham simply isn't able to take and fill a stage with presence--there is no natural comfort on stage. Her posture is week. She tended to let her eyes turn towards the floor in a manner natural for people on film, but abnoxious in theaters, especially to those sitting in the mezz. She isn't without hope, however, and may work these issues out by opening night (sometime in March).

3) Craig Beirko Can't Sing--As an actor, he was a very charming and convincing Sky, he just happens to be mildly tone deaf. His voice was thin, couldn't sustain the more legato phrases of his (and the show's) two key ballads ("I'll Know" and "I've Never Been in Love Before"), and he had pitch problems all over the place. "Luck Be a Lady Tonight" was particularly painful, and it really, really shouldn't be. I don't foresee this issue resolving itself by opening--unless he tries to sing less and "Rex Harrison" his way through the show.

4) Oliver Platt and Kate Jennings Grant Were Fine--I found Grant to be a particularly likable Sarah Brown--a hard trick to pull off when a characters chief traits are being both a prude and pious. But it was entirely believable that Sky would fall for her, and vice-versa. Oliver Platt was a rather adorable Nathan and sang his half of "Sue Me" just fine (though the treatment of that number was oddly melancholy). His low-key performance let a few jokes fall flat, but he managed to seem convincing both as a Gambling Tough Guy (within the world of this play), and the Overgrown Man Child in love with Adelaide.

5) Des McAnuff Hates Musicals--Or, rather, Des McAnuff appears to hate musical comedy. At the very least he has no faith in its charms. This is the most tech-heavy GUYS & DOLLS ever produced. He came out before the show started to make a curtain announcement explaining that we were in previews and that if there was a "train wreck" they might have to stop the show for a bit. Anyone who has seen GUYS & DOLLS would be puzzled by this statement. How could it possibly be a train wreck? There aren't any helecopters, chandeliers, or flying green witches. At preset we were greeted to an essentially bare stage with some steel beams. (Think GUYS & DOLLS on the set of TOMMY). And That's basically what we get for the rest of the show, only there are about 2,000 pieces of rolling furniture and a super high-tech screen in the background with moving backdrops composed of computer-generated images on New York (hence the potential for any number of train wrecks). During a song like "The Oldest Established" the gamblers traveled into a barber shop, funeral parlor, and around any number of corners (looking for a craps location), and the backdrop would zoom in and out and weave through streets. In Sky and Sarah's scene at the Save a Soul Mission, a computer generated elevated train passes overhead a few times. In "I've Never Been in Love Before" (located here at a dock) a computer generated boat sails away at the end. All this struck me as being entirely unwhimsical and unromantic, nothing in keeping with the "Fable" GUYS & DOLLS originally purported itself to be. The entire production was too busy and kinetic to enjoy itself. No one has ever had a problem seeing Nicely Nicely and Benny Southstreet more or less stand there and sing the title song, or needed to see 6 different couples wander past Sarah and Adelaide's park bench in "Marry the Man Today". No one, that is, but Des McAnuff.

The whole evening is framed with the image of Damon Runyon at his typerwriter. He starts typing, leaves his apartment (and the backdrop scrolls down 6 flights and opens up to a street view) and spends the rest of the evening watching scenes and also participating in dance numbers. It was unclear if were are supposed to think he is watching his creation, or watching the gritty underbelly of New York for inspiration. The former makes the most sense (as these characters are neither gritty nor real), but I'm not convinced that's what McAnuff is going for. He put in a new prologue, filled with noir-ish scenes of gamblers, boxers, brawls and dames, and inserts a few other "mob guys as callous killer" sight gags throughout. If perhaps this is a more accurate--or at least sexy and dangerous--depiction of mob life than the quirky gambling-loving mobsters of GUYS & DOLLS, the show is simply not about sex, danger, or accuracy. If we ever really thought they were the real kind of mobster the whole show would fall apart--they would shoot or buy their way out of any of these situations. And sing less.

I have no idea whether or not this will be a hit, or if critics will think of it as "fresh" or "cold", but, as I said in #1, GUYS & DOLLS is a great musical. If, in this case it is probably better than the production presenting it, you'd probably have a hard time being miserable.

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