Goodspeed’s “Guys and Dolls” Is Fun But Not Great

Photo by Diane Sobolewiski

Photo by Diane Sobolewiski

By Karen Isaacs

When Goodspeed Musicals announced they were producing Guys and Dolls as their opening show for the 2015 season, I was delighted.

Guys and Dolls is on my list of the best musicals ever — it ranks somewhere in the top ten — with terrific music and delicious story.  And Goodspeed has an excellent reputation for taking these classics and making them more personal and touching — just remember what they have done with Carousel, Fiddler on the Roof, ShowBoat and others.

But I was disappointed. It is not the cast — though I have some reservations about some performers;  no, my disappointment is more with the directorial concept by director Don Stephenson.

Miss Adelaide and Nathan Detroit. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Miss Adelaide and Nathan Detroit. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Guys and Dolls can be a comic strip — after all, the story is about the raffish gamblers and show girls that inhabit Times Square in some bygone era.  Nathan Detroit, who runs a “floating” crap game is looking for a location for a game because some big rollers are in town. At the same time, he is trying to avoid the pressure of his fiancée, Miss Adelaide, to finally marry her after a 14 year engagement.  When the very big roller Sky Masterson comes into town, Nathan hits about a scheme to get the needed funds to guarantee the game: he will bet that Sky cannot take the head of the local mission, Sarah Brown, to Havana.

This introduces us to the second plot — Sarah who is young and earnest but failing at attracting people to the “Save-a-Soul” mission.  The mission is threatened with closing, but Sky offers to guarantee “one dozen sinners”.  The offer is too good to pass up specially since Sarah is attracted to the good-looking gambler.

As the two plots intertwine, lots of great songs and some dances help propel to the two romances.  Will Miss Adelaide finally get Nathan Detroit to the altar?  Will Sky and Sarah overcome their differences?  Everyone can predict the answers to both of these.

Frank Loesser who wrote the music and lyrics to this masterpiece, sprinkled the score with so many classics:  from Miss Adelaide’s humorous songs (“Adelaide’s Lament,” “Marry the Man Today,” “Sue Me”) to Sky’s (“My Time of Day,” “Luck Be a Lady”), Miss Sarah and Sky’s duets (“I’ll Know,” “I’ve Never Been in Love Before”) to Miss Sarah’s solo (“If I Were a Bell.”)  AND you then include the wonderful opening number “Fugue for Tinhorns,” the title song, and “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat.”

Sarah Brown. Photo by Diane Sobolewiski

Sarah Brown. Photo by Diane Sobolewiski

So what isn’t quite right about this production?  First of all, the audience doesn’t get to see most of these characters as “people” — they are simple caricatures. You don’t sense that Nathan really loves Miss Adelaide.  Even Miss Adelaide seems to be playing at love more than really in it.  Her great number, “Adelaide’s Lament” seemed more shtick than real. Even Sarah seems all surface.  The surface-only performances also goes to the supporting roles. Big Jule never seems really menacing, and even Nicely-Nicely is one dimensional.

The other problem is that there is no real chemistry developed between Sky and Sarah Brown.  They are playing at romance and love; you don’t really believe it.

So director Stephenson has given us a surface production that while competent and enjoyable, does not let the audience really into the characters.

Fugue for Tinhorns. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Fugue for Tinhorns. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Scenic designer Paul Tate dePoo II has worked miracles at recreating the multiple locations of the story including the sewer where the big crap game ends up on the limited Goodspeed space.  With lighting designer Stephen Terry,  you do get the sense of Times Square at night.

Choreographer Alex Sanchez does a good job with Goodspeed’s small stage, even if the big dance number –“The Crapshooter’s Dance” doesn’t set the world on fire.

Of the cast members, Nancy Anderson was the obvious standout as Miss Adelaide. She came closest to creating a complete character.  Mark Price as Nathan just did not fit my idea of either Nathan’s look or sound though in some ways he resembled  Sam Levene who originated the role.  Manna Nichols has a lovely voice as Sarah and Tony Roach has both handsome looks and a great voice as Sky;  too bad they just didn’t seem to “click on stage.”

Guys and Dolls is a great musical that is getting a good but not great production at Goodspeed Musical Theater in East Haddam through June 20.  You will enjoy the show even if you wish it were better.

For tickets visit Goodspeed or call 860-873-8668.

Sky Masterson. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Sky Masterson. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

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