The Unsinkable Guys and Dolls

Frank Loesser's tunes stand up to the Muny's production

n the late 1940s -- not long before Guys and Dolls took Broadway by storm in 1950 -- Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, America's most celebrated acting couple, found themselves touring America in a Terence Rattigan comedy titled O Mistress Mine. They'd already performed the play in London and New York. Now, in order to keep the show fresh, they began to tinker with it. They tried reciting some of the biggest laugh lines upstage, and even offstage, simply as an exercise to determine how durable the material actually was.

There's a sense of that same playful experimentation this week at the Muny. Everybody knows Guys and Dolls is a proven classic. But how proven? How classic? Apparently Muny staffers are trying to find out. What fun they must have had in their production meetings, thinking up creative ways to sabotage the evening.

They began by surrounding the actors with some of the cheesiest sets of the summer -- which is saying a lot. Guys and Dolls is a "fable of Broadway" inspired by Damon Runyon's inimitable present-tense tales about the colorful characters who inhabit that glitzy never-never land around Times Square. The scenic design can go a long way toward evincing the show's rowdy, rollicking mood. Not here.

Then they sought to play fast and loose with the actors' costumes. As Nathan Detroit, proprietor of the town's "longest established permanent floating crap game," Bruce Adler is swimming in a suit jacket that must have been designed by Omar the Tentmaker. Adler and Frank Sinatra could both fit into that jacket at the same time. Sky Masterson (Jeff McCarthy), the most extravagant gambler of them all, often is consigned to a dull brown suit that even a bank teller would be loath to wear. For his big song, "Luck Be a Lady," which McCarthy sings with a powerful oak-like voice, he is actually wearing a white shirt. If we didn't realize that this was part of a larger test, a white shirt on Sky Masterson would be preposterous. But as a challenge to the show's durability, that shirt was an inspired notion.

We could list lots more of these clever tests -- props that get left onstage at the end of scenes, other props the dancers stumble over, snail-like scene changes that drag out the evening -- oh, the staff came up with lots of imaginative ideas. But they also learned what they wanted to know: Guys and Dolls is indestructible. For that we give thanks to composer Frank Loesser, whose witty, toe-tapping score is a veritable hit parade of Broadway standards. When they're sung here, a viewer can momentarily forget all that other foolishness and sink into the center of American musical theater at its sassiest.

The plot (as if you didn't already know) concerns Sky Masterson's attempt to win a $1,000 wager from Nathan Detroit by taking the prudish Miss Sarah Brown, she of the Save A Soul Mission, to Havana. Sarah's role is not so different from many a dull leading lady in 1950s musicals. She's cut from the same prim cloth as Marian the Librarian in The Music Man. But when this staid Salvation Army worker finds herself tipsy in Cuba, the actress playing Sarah finally gets one chance to cut loose and reveal her inner spunk. Catherine Brunell seizes that moment and reminds us of what a spirited and delightful song "If I Were a Bell" truly is.

Among the many amusing supporting characters, Wayne Pretlow as Nicely Nicely Johnson goes on a tear -- as indeed he should -- with the show-stopping "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat." Loesser's impish, irreverent lyrics in the title song also prove to be a winner for Pretlow and John Sloman as Benny Southstreet.

But it's Stacey Logan as the long-suffering Miss Adelaide who best conveys the madcap hilarity that is the essence of Guys and Dolls. For fourteen years this queen of the Hotbox nightclub has been waiting in vain to marry the slippery Nathan. She is pathetic, ridiculous and endearing. Logan's program bio makes no mention of her having played the role before. If not, her performance is all the more dazzling, because she has Adelaide nailed. It's as if she memorized Vivian Blaine's definitive portrayal in the 1955 motion picture and now has gone to the next plateau by absorbing the character into her own being.

Watch how she inverts her toes on every psychosomatic sneeze, as if she's about to break into the Charleston. And when Logan stands alone onstage to sing "Adelaide's Lament," this is a textbook example of what works best at the Muny. The time-tested truth is this: One gifted performer can fill that vast stage more fully -- and hold the audience's rapt attention more completely -- than a chorus of eighty.