Stage Review: CMU gives us the innocent, cartoon version with sassy 'Guys and Dolls'
Hot Box Girls Victoria Ward, left, and Steffi Garard, right, bracket Emily Rossell's Adelaide in CMU's "Guys and Dolls."
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Seasonal presents come in different guises. But a "Guys and Dolls" by the talented dramats at Carnegie Mellon certainly qualifies.
I count Frank Loesser's masterpiece (book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows) as perhaps the greatest American musical comedy -- securely in the top five, anyway. This has a lot to do with its urban gangster landscape, which is, along with the Wild West, one of our two great story-generating national myths.
Damon Runyon has a lot to do with it, too, since his short stories define the musical's picturesque, argot-rich community of Broadway grifters, gamblers and chorus girls. His is the innocent, cartoon version of the mythic gangster world which also gives us the gangster tragedy of Cagney, Scorsese and "The Sopranos."
This softening of the "Guys and Dolls" world also owes something to its wistful backstage element. But however achieved, it's a world where even the cop on the take and the killer from Chicago have hearts of gold. Stuff it with such Loesser songs (Loesser is always more) as the comic "Bushel and a Peck," "Take Back Your Mink" and "Marry the Man Today," the romantic "If I Were a Bell" and "I've Never Been in Love Before," the pulsating "Luck Be a Lady" and the delicious "Guys and Dolls," and the result is a classic.
Guest director Steven Cosson, or perhaps mainly his designers, has an unusual take on this sunny material: Austin Jephson's set of brick walls and Jake DeGroot's moody lighting are more Hopper than Runyon. Even Noelle Raffy's costumes, although giving the men pastel shirts and ties, rely on sober suits rather than the more raffish chic of other recent stagings.
- Where: Chosky Theater, Purnell Center, Carnegie Mellon campus, Oakland.
- When: Today and Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 and 8 p.m..
- Tickets: Very few left; $12-$27; 412-268-2407 or www.cmu.edu.
The result is that Adelaide's Hot Box Revue numbers look less like bouncy Runyon-Loesser cartoons than like Kurt Weill or "Cabaret." But you can't keep "Guys and Dolls" down. This magnificent musical comedy fable sings its sassy sweetness no matter what.
Certainly the student performing talent lives up to expectation, especially the women. Jessica Waxman is a stern little Sarah, the better to register the luminous shock of unexpected love, and she has a voice of strength and subtlety. Emily Rossell gets both the humor and the pathos in the hopeful Adelaide, and her famous "Lament" has plenty of wry comic intimacy.
Robert Lenzi is a tall, handsomely voiced Sky Masterson, though without much of the sense of danger some Skys exude. Ben Goldberg is a very capable comic as Nathan Detroit.
Otherwise, I was especially taken by the comic zest of Laura Mixon's Gen. Cartwright. The trio of Barrett Davis, Michael Roberts McKee and Liam Rhodes survives the difficult opening "Fugue for Tinhorns" and then scores big with the ebullient title song.
There are 21 performers in all, but only four Hot Box girls, which I call a disappointment. And the performers don't always protect what I would call key lines. Usually, those are jokes, and I'm sure that many of what are jokes to me are obscure references to those younger: "Biltmore Garage," which is funny because it's named for Joey Biltmore, but only if you know about the Biltmore Hotel; Scarsdale Galahad; Rogers Peet; and Hollanderize, a particularly obscure joke.
But there's a worse fate for little gems of social history than to be enshrined in a living delight like "Guys and Dolls."
First Published December 6, 2007 12:00 am