By Patrick Hurley
The acclaimed Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Guys & Dolls gets a wondrously minimal, beautifully staged production at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, playing now through December 20.
One of the most iconic of all Broadway musicals, Guys & Dolls follows the love story of two couples, high-risk gambler Sky Masterson (Jeremy Peter Johnson) who falls for missionary Sarah Brown (Kate Hurster), and crap game organizer Nathan Detroit (Rodney Gardiner), and his longtime, long suffering fiancé and nightclub singer Miss Adelaide (A fabulous Robin Goodrin Nordli). Set in the high stakes world of underground gambling, Sky and Nathan both get in over their heads taking bets that leave them with consequences they couldn’t have imagined. Which is to say they realize the need for love in their lives. All of course set to the famous score with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, that includes the songs “A Bushel and a Peck,” “Luck be a Lady,” “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” and “I’ve never been in Love Before.”
This production, directed by Mary Zimmerman, is a home run. Everything works. The minimal set, designed by Daniel Ostling, and the fluid scene changes, where the actors serve as stage hands and move the set and prop pieces, heightened the theatricality and allowed for the movement of the story to never slow down, which kept the energy level almost crackling. The costumes, designed by Mara Blumenfeld are flawless, beautifully capturing the spirit of an era while never distracting from the performances. Likewise, the choreography, by Daniel Pelzig, captures so much of the spirit of a bygone era, but never pulls us out of the story. This production is really about the relationships happening between the characters.
We are not mired down in a flashy Broadway-style spectacle, rather, we are left to watch the people on stage and not the stage magic. By focusing on the characters, the songs become so much more about what’s being said, rather than anything else, and this allows for character development to occur in each and every song. Nothing felt out of place, or obligatory. This is not to say that there aren’t those moments where the stage pictures are visually impressive. Nicely-Nicely Johnson (A terrific Daniel T. Parker) and his show-stopping number “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” brings the show to delirious heights. He and the ensemble create a wonderfully visual, nearly ecstatic moment; all without any trick lighting or flashy set pieces, just through choreography and performance.
The entire ensemble is worthy of mention. Everyone elevates this show. The quartet that makes up the two main couples, are all spectacular. As Nathan Detroit, Rodney Gardiner captures just enough smarm, he’s somewhat of a weasel, but he’s also ridiculously likable. Mr. Gardiner is able to play evasive and vulnerable at once. He’s fascinating to watch. As Save-Your-Soul missionary Sarah Brown, Kate Hurster is pitch-perfect. Her transformation in the Havana scenes are particularly priceless, and girl can sing! As Sky Masterson, Jeremy Peter Johnson has an easy charm and plays the duality of the role smoothly. We believe that he’s capable of sweeping Sarah off her feet to win a bet, just as much as we can believe his feelings for her are sincere, often at the same time. It is this vulnerability that the actor so easily portrays that we are rooting for him all the way. Finally, Robin Goodrin Nordli is perfection as Miss Adelaide. Her comic timing is a thing of beauty, and she is able to embody humanity over caricature, and for that alone, she steals this show.
This production doesn’t miss a beat. There is no excess, nothing is here that doesn’t need to be. It is that rarest of gifts, an out-of-date, over-produced Broadway Musical that plays with classic tropes, tired clichés, and easy resolutions, and yet makes every one of those old devices feel completely and refreshingly brand new. This is a must see!
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival Production of
Guys & Dolls
Directed by Mary Zimmerman
Bram Goldsmith Theater
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd. Beverly Hills, CA 90210