March 4, 2009

It's No Dice for This "Guys and Dolls"

You can still smell the fresh paint when you walk into the Nederlander Theatre. It got a spiffy facelift when Rent closed after playing there for 12 years. There are even fancy new Mitsubishi hand dryers in the ladies restroom that do a terrific job. I wish I could say the theater’s other new occupant, the revival of Guys and Dolls that opened on Sunday, works as well.

My husband K flat out refused to see this new version of the Frank Loesser musical based on the Damon Runyon stories about the small time hustlers and good-time gals who once populated Times Square. K, a pit musician, had played in the acclaimed 1992 revival that starred Nathan Lane, Faith Prince and Peter Gallagher and he was sure it was too soon for a new production to match that one.

My sister Joanne tends to be more open minded. Besides, Guys and Dolls is one of her all-time favorite musicals. So much so that she even loves the slightly embarrassing movie version with Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra. So after grabbing a quick dinner at Schnipper's Quality Kitchen, the upscale fast food restaurant that just opened on the corner of 41st and Eighth, she and I walked down the block to the Nederlander.

About 15 minutes into the show, right after Oliver Platt, playing Nathan Detroit, the fast-talking scoundrel who runs "
the oldest, established, permanent floating, Crap game in New York," has his first exchange with the hapless cop Lt. Brannigan, Joanne turned to me with a look of dismay. “This isn’t working,” she whispered. The man sitting behind us was less euphemistic. “This is horrible,” he hissed to his companion.

Nobody likes to see a show fail. At least I don’t. But there’s not much good I can say about this Guys and Dolls. The original 1950 production played for 1,200 performances and some people consider it the epitome of Broadway musical comedy. It has been revived on Broadway four times before this.

There had been talk that the 2005 British production, directed by Michael Grandage, choreographed by Rob Ashford, starring Ewan McGregor as the beguiling big-time gambler Sky Masterson and Jane Krakowski as Nathan Detroit’s long-suffering fiancĂ©e Miss Adelaide, and reportedly grittier than any of its predecessors, might transfer to Broadway as well. When it didn’t, the Jersey Boys team of director Des McAnuff and choreographer Sergio Trujillo put in their bid for it.

That seemed fine. Then they named the cast. Platt, an actor I admire but one who has no musical experience, was tapped to play Nathan Detroit. The character is usually the show’s comic center but Platt seems almost embarrassed to be onstage at all.

Lauren Graham, who made her name as the mom in the cult TV series “The Gilmore Girls” does better with Miss Adelaide. She belts out her songs and looks great in the form-clinging dresses and thongs costume designer Paul Tazewell has designed for her to wear but her performance doesn’t capture the distinctive mix of quirkiness, poignancy and pizzazz that makes the character so lovable. “Not ditzy enough,” sighed Joanne.

Craig Bierko as Sky and Kate Jennings Grant as Sarah Brown, the Salvation Army sister he woos on a bet, do fine with Loesser classics like “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” but lack sufficient sizzle.

The creative team doesn’t fare much better. Trujillo’s dances struck me as generic. The one thing most critics like about the show is Robert Brill’s glitzy set but the space seemed cramped to me and I couldn’t figure out why he built a trench in front of the stage that the actors kept running into and out of for no apparent reason. Similarly, Dustin O’Neill’s projections make the most extensive and cinematic use of the new technology I’ve seen on Broadway since The Woman in White but it’s so busy, swooping here and swooping there, that it made me queasy.

There are a few bright spots. Loesser's score is still unbeatable. Tituss Burgess as the Nathan Detroit sidekick named Nicely-Nicely and the always reliable Mary Testa as a Salvation Army honcho bring down the house with the show’s always reliable showstopper, “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat.” But it’s the 19th song out of 23 and it comes too late to save the show. For, in the end there are no true winners in this game. Except for K, who, when I got home, told me he'd had a very nice evening staying in.


Vance said...

I originally though Sergio's dances were generic but then I saw moments of brilliance in them, but then realized it all didn't work because they were all cramped on stage. Glad that I'm not the only one that noticed the poor set design.

For me Graham was fine (but I'm a huge Gilmore Girls fan) but yah, you could basically tell that she was far more intelligent than her character and trying to act dumbed down. (but for me that was still fun to watch)

jan@broadwayandme said...

Thanks for the comments, Vance. I think Graham's other Gilmore Girls fans will be happy to see her live on a stage too.