We gave it a C+
Since its Broadway debut in 1950, Frank Loesser’s musical gem Guys and Dolls has been a staple of high school and community theaters. And with good reason. The lush score, the witty lyrics, and the larger-than-life cast of gangsters, hustlers, and floozies (and a handful of less-rigid-than-they-appear missionaries) are all memorably endearing. Thanks to the show, the adjective Runyonesque has extended its sell-by date well past the time when anyone actually reads the Damon Runyon stories that inspired it. The trouble with Jersey Boys director Des McAnuff’s Broadway revival is that too often it plays like a very good community theater production, albeit one with considerably pricier sets.
Where does the show go astray? I’ve got the horse right here: It starts with the guys. Oliver Platt is an actor of many talents, but he’s no one’s idea of a musical comedy star. He seems adrift playing marriage-shy gambling impresario Nathan Detroit, caroming in and out of accents, sometimes within the same sentence. At times, he plays Nathan as a petulant 5-year-old boy; at others, as a savvy street-wise fella. Craig Bierko, as smooth gambling ace Sky Masterson, is on surer musical footing (he has a thin but confident voice), but he too seems miscast. It’s hard to believe that a guy as self-absorbed as Bierko’s Sky has much time for romance, let alone actually falling in love.
The show’s leading ladies fare much better. Gilmore Girls veteran Lauren Graham — making her Broadway debut as Miss Adelaide, nightclub singer and Nathan’s perpetual fiancée — has a sure, strong voice, and wins some fresh laughs out of her durable solos like ”Adelaide’s Lament.” But Graham, who follows such superlative recent Adelaides as Faith Prince (in the 1992 Broadway revival) and Jane Krakowski (in a remarkable 2005 London run) hasn’t yet managed to fully inhabit the role. It’s hard to play a simpleton, and the strains of the effort (and Graham’s underlying intelligence) too often flash on her face. Meanwhile, Kate Jennings Grant employs her nimble body and fine soprano to lovely effect as Sarah Brown, the missionary who falls for Sky.
The curious thing about McAnuff’s production is how little freshness he brings to the proceedings. Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is mostly lackluster, aside from some acrobatic male hoofing in the second-act ”Crapshooters’ Ballet.” The talented Titus Burgess (The Little Mermaid) is saddled with an ill-fitting fat suit as comic gangster Nicely Nicely Johnson (presumably because the role is traditionally played by a plus-size performer). And McAnuff’s biggest innovation, introducing a silent Damon Runyon character (Raymond Del Barrio) to frame the show and trail the characters through the action, is a distracting and unnecessary diversion. His one genius move: casting the irrepressible Mary Testa (Xanadu) in the usually throwaway role of General Cartwright, the boss of the mission. A little Testa can go a very long way — she’s the Energizer Bunny of over-the-top, look-at-me performers — and here we get a perfect helping. C+
Tickets: Ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000