Gambling on 'Guys and Dolls'

Lead performances on the money in an often-disappointing AACC production

Theater Review

November 13, 2008|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Damon Runyon's colorful characters brought to musical life by composer Frank Loesser's 1950 hit Guys and Dolls remains high on most lists of great Broadway musicals. It seemed a safe bet that this timeless show about gamblers done by a lively young cast would provide an entertaining evening and continue Anne Arundel Community College's proud performing arts tradition at Pascal Center.

The bet proved risky on opening night last Friday, when Moonlight Troupers' Guys and Dolls fell far short of expectations, based on nearly every Troupers show I'd seen over the last dozen years - including a terrific Guys and Dolls done 10 years ago by a talented cast against a great Manhattan backdrop.

Guys and Dolls centers on two couples who are part of the 1940s nightclub and gambling scene. Nathan Detroit, who needs to raise $1,000 to assure a location for his craps game, bets cool Sky Masterson that Sky can't persuade local mission leader Sarah Brown to go to Cuba with him for dinner. To persuade straight-laced Sarah to accompany him to Cuba, Sky promises to deliver a dozen sinners to the mission for an all-night prayer meeting. Meanwhile, Nathan's involvement in yet another game upsets his fiancee of 14 years, Miss Adelaide, who blames Nathan's gambling for the frequent wedding postponements.

The Troupers production has a few virtues, including the reliable pit orchestra under the direction of Raymond Ascione that was relatively free of balance problems. The well-played snappy overture called "Runyonland" accompanies a parade of assorted Broadway characters passing before us, here choreographed so slow that I started to focus on the strange square box at stage right - a poorly proportioned thing with no resemblance to the New York City newspaper stand it was to suggest.

The segue from "Runyonland" into "Fugue for Tinhorns" disappoints with timing clearly off in this favorite Nicely, Benny and Rusty trio ("I got the horse right here. The name is Paul Revere") sung here by an uninspired trio of Anwar Thomas, Neil Smith and Brandon Hendrickson. Next was "The Oldest Established" anthem praising "Good Old Reliable Nathan" that lacked harmony and vitality. Still another musical disappointment followed with Sarah and Sky's ill-paired first duet "I'll Know," the soprano of Geniece Albritton, seeming better suited to an operetta, joined by Matt Stevenson's Sky Masterson, whose light baritone was audible enough to indicate he knew he was singing in a Broadway-type musical.

This Troupers production finally came to megawatt life when Hannah Thornhill appeared to bring her Broadway-caliber star power as Miss Adelaide, almost saving the show single-handedly. Thornhill's Miss Adelaide triumphed in every aspect from comic delivery to expert singing and dancing. Thornhill is outstanding among the other Hot Box chorines in "A Bushel and a Peck" and "Take Back Your Mink," and her "Adelaide's Lament" is near-perfect, as is her duet in "Marry the Man Today," which elevates Albritton's Sarah to show-stopping authenticity.

Another musical highlight occurs when Thornhill joins Andre Hinds as Nathan Detroit to deliver a memorable "Sue Me" duet that is fun and displays Hinds' skills as an actor-singer.

Kimberly Kandra's choreography is tepidly uninspired and poorly executed, from the Hot Box girls incapable of kicking in line and the Latin dancers without sizzle in the Havana Club scene to the totally out-of-sync guys in the "Crap Shooters Dance."

Scenic and lighting designer Rob Berry created the newsstand unworthy of the sleaziest tabloid and the boring pastel nonrepresentational backdrops that, according to the Director's Notes in the program, are supposed to recall American artists Edward Hopper, known for sun-drenched New England cottages, and empty melancholy streets and lonely city diners, as in his Nighthawks, and pop artist Andy Warhol. These artists' relevance to the vibrant New York of Guys and Dolls eludes me, as does the artistic merit of backdrops incongruent with the bold-colored costumes of the gamblers.

Lighting is flat and uninteresting, except where it worsens with dead spots in scenes where the Hot Box girls are dancing in shadow. This brings up another gripe: Why are there only two tables at which no patrons are sitting at a presumably popular club show?

On opening night, sound was a consistent problem with strong singers such as Hannah Thornhill, who least needed a microphone, too loud, and weak singers such as Matt Stevenson without benefit of any sound boost. In dialogue, microphones proved a distraction as sound varied from loud to soft as speakers turned. Emeritus professor of theater at AACC and returning director Barbara Marder deserves a better effort from her cast and technical crew for her farewell offering that should cap a career of memorable Moonlight Troupers performances.

Continuing tomorrow and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., all performances are at AACC's Pascal Center. For tickets, call the box office at 410-777-2457.

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