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ASPEN TIMES: Review: ‘Guys and Dolls’ at Theatre Aspen

ASPEN TIMES: Review: ‘Guys and Dolls’ at Theatre Aspen

When “Guys and Dolls” opened on Broadway in 1950, it launched a theatrical juggernaut. The show ran for 1,200 performances, won the Tony Award for Best Musical, a New York Drama Critics Award and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama (which sadly went unbestowed because writer Abe Burrows was under investigation at that time from the House Un-American Activities Committee).

Over the ensuing decades there have been numerous revivals on Broadway and in London’s West End. Today, nearly 70 years after its debut, the show remains a favorite of summer stock, community theaters and drama departments everywhere.

All of which means, even if you are the most casual of theater-goer, you have likely seen “Guy and Dolls,” perhaps more than once, possibly featuring your kids.

So why see it now within the close confines of the Theatre Aspen tent?

Because if you don’t, you will miss out on one of the most exuberant evenings of the summer season. The production is so crisp and confident, so redolent with nostalgia and romance that only the stonehearted could remain impervious to its pleasures.

The ensemble, which includes more than a half-dozen Theatre Aspen apprentices expertly hoofing it alongside seasoned pros, delivers a raft of classic showtunes — “Luck Be a Lady,” “I’ll Know,” “Take Back Your Mink,” “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” among them — with verve and unalloyed joy.

For readers raised in a cave or who have somehow otherwise missed this treasure of the American theater, here’s the quick skinny: The musical was based on the stories and characters of Damon Runyon, namely the sundry small-time gangsters, two-bit hustlers, strippers and ladies of the night who populated the seedy environs of mid-20th century mid-town Manhattan.

It harkens back to a time and social milieu in which men were “guys” — that is, when they weren’t “marks” — and women were “broads,” “dames” or “dolls.” Gender roles were clearly defined; the concepts of political correctness and gender fluidity were a long way from entering the public conversation.

In the world of “Guys and Dolls,” everyone gets by any way they can, often just left of the law. Craps and cards are king. Men live for the game; women live for the men.

Enter center-stage Sky Masterson (an agile Tony Roach), the highest of all the high rollers. There isn’t a bet Sky won’t take or make, including how high his own fever will spike when he gets the flu. Sky is slick, only slightly louche, and the last thing he ever intends to do is fall for a doll. After all, what woman could hold a candle to pocket aces?

Along comes flinty Sarah Brown (a suitably prim Sarah Marie Charles with the voice of a cherubim choir). Sarah leads the Save a Soul Mission, which has decamped in the center of the 49th Street action. The area is rife with sinners. However, the mission risks closure from the home office if Sarah doesn’t start delivering converts. The problem is that as soon as she opens her mouth to preach the gospel, the so-called sinners scatter like cockroaches under the glare of a bare bulb.

Meanwhile, upping the plot’s ante, resident bookie and keeper-of-the-action Nathan Detroit (an irresistibly endearing Blakely Slaybaugh) is besieged with problems of his own. He is short the wad of cash needed to secure a place for the big game. Mob boss Big Jule (Chad Fornwalt) is breathing down his neck. And to top things off, Miss Adelaide, Nathan’s fiancee of a scant 14 years, is putting the screws on to really truly finally tying the knot. (How much heat can one poor guy take?) In a fit of desperation posing as inspiration, Nathan bets Sky that he can’t get missionary Sarah to go on a date with him — to Havana. So completely does Sky Masterson believe in the power of his own charm that he leaps at the bet. Game on: The romp ramps up and the mishegas proceeds apace.

There are so many outstanding performances in the show it’s difficult to highlight just a few. But Julie Kavanagh as Miss Adelaide deserves special mention for her ability to navigate the outer reaches of character without tipping over into caricature. And Ray DeMattis as Sarah’s uncle Arvide is proof that no role is too small to be noteworthy. In his brief appearances on stage he is consistently alive, attuned and tender. “More I Cannot Wish You” is the show’s most touching number.

Chief among the challenges of staging large cast musicals in Theatre Aspen’s intimate space is the fact that there is simply not a lot of surface area around which to move a multitude of bodies. But under Hunter Foster’s deft direction, in tandem with Lisa Shriver’s spirited choreography (including some impressive close-quarters gymnastics), this production pulls it off with aplomb. The band, under the musical direction of Eric Alford, is outstanding. Its inconspicuous positioning in the wings (versus upstage behind a scrim as with past productions) gives this production room to live and breathe on David Arsenault’s sharply appointed set. While some larger musicals have felt almost too large for Theatre Aspen’s small venue, “Guys and Dolls” feels just right.

During his curtain speech the night, Theatre Aspen’s producing director Jed Bernstein shared with the audience that Cy Feuer — who with Ernest Martin conceived and produced the original Broadway show — had been his mentor. Bernstein had always wanted to mount “Guys and Dolls” in Feuer’s honor. Now he has. And it is a tribute of which he can be proud.