Guys & Dolls
By way of professional confessions, we should admit that we'd never seen "Guys and Dolls" before, though it's more than 60 years old and has roughly the same relationship to musical comedy on Broadway as the invention of Model T has to the interstate highway system. But every new production of an old show is somebody's first, including this Broadway by the Bay regular season closer (not counting December's holiday radio play), which opened this weekend at the Fox Theatre in Redwood City.
The Molly Bell-directed "Guys and Dolls" offers a cartoon version of Depression-era New York, as outlined by designer Margaret Toomey's eye-popping costumes and newspaper comic-strip background scenery, populated by caricatures of fast-talking hustlers and their long-suffering love interests. The story that emerges sounds surprisingly convoluted if you stop to think about it:
To finance his back-room casino, small-time hustler Nathan Detroit (fireplug David Mister) makes a bet with high-roller Sky Masterson (Jack Mosbacher, who looks like something you could build out of an Aaron Eckhart model kit) that Sky can't connive uptight do-gooder Sarah (severe, but bubbly Kelly Britt) into dating him, all while Nathan keeps one step ahead of his own 14-year fiancée, hypochondriac nightclub singer Adelaide (Mary Kalita, somehow both endearing and harrowing at the same time).
Geez, did you get all that? It's actually pretty straightforward when you see the show, but we don't blame you for feeling a little winded right now.
On paper, "Guys and Dolls" is a love story between Sarah and Sky, and it does give them the usual dramatic arc, intimate duets and applause-inducing solos, all well suited to Mosbacher and Britt's vocal talents. But to be honest, this romance doesn't hold much for the audience. The material is old hat and, except for Britt's brief turn cutting loose Havana-side with "If I Were a Bell," the songs are too conventional to be worth the investment. Rather, it's Mister and Kalita as Nathan and Adelaide who make "Guys and Dolls" worthwhile.
Somehow, between the cartoon/vaudeville shticks, there emerges a real, relatable story between them about working people coming to terms with each other. When Nathan opines to his cronies, "If we could just get a thousand bucks we could be millionaires!" it's absurd, but there's a tint of real, blue-collar pathos to it. The running gag with Adelaide creating a fictional family life in her letters to her mother in Rhode Island is funny, but also a little sad in a very genuine way, and from these deceptively well-drawn figures comes a love story you really want to root for. A lesser show might be afraid to give the clowns this much substance, but in the end it's their story, not that of the unrealistically pretty leads, that gives BBBay's "Guys and Dolls" its emotional substance.
It's hard not to argue that "Guys and Dolls" feels dated; enjoyable, certainly, but still noticeably dated. But things like that strangely identifiable comic couple and the genuine grittiness that lies just under the surface of the zany, four-color version of the Depression the show serves up keep it honest and relevant in a way that scads of similar shows aren't.
The same way that "The Honeymooners" looks like every other TV sitcom but is somehow ineffably better, "Guys and Dolls" feels very much like any other Broadway musical comedy from the period but proves that much stronger for daring to give its madcap antics some integrity beneath the surface.
Which is not to say that just what's on the surface isn't enjoyable in its own way. How can we not reserve at least a little affection for a show whose dramatis personae include characters named Harry the Horse and Liverlips Louie? By the way, special supporting cast trophy should go to Alex Rodriguez as big-eating, happy-go-lucky Nicely Nicely Johnson. The smile on his face that puts a smile on your face ought to be a welcome addition to any ensemble.
"Guys and Dolls" plays through Nov. 17 at Redwood City's Fox Theatre, 2215 Broadway. For tickets and information, call 650-369-2250 or visit www.foxrwc.com