Guys and Dolls
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
March 4, 2009
Guys and Dolls is one of the greatest and most entertaining musicals ever to grace a Broadway stage, but one would hardly know that from the current revival it's getting on The Great White Way. Where to begin with everything that is wrong with this colossally disappointing production? The most prominent word that comes to mind in describing it is: lazy. Many of the creative decisions reek of complacency, as if the company is content to let their efforts be merely "good enough." For what? Everyone here seems to think the strength of the show's score and reputation alone will carry the day without ever acknowledging that a show cannot breathe life into itself.
Another word that comes to mind in describing this Guys and Dolls is: indifference. On the flip side of the company's collective laziness is the nagging sensation that they all know they're working on a bad production and don't care enough about it—or the audience, for that matter—to, maybe, try and make it better. The result is like watching a bunch of apathetic office drones drag themselves to work on Monday morning: they don't want to be there, but they've got bills to pay, so they do the minimum amount necessary to keep from getting fired.
This is a particular shame because Guys and Dolls is such a fun and charming show. Frank Loesser, Abe Burrows, and Jo Swerling's classic tuner about 1940s Times Square gamblers, showgirls, and gangsters introduced the descriptive phrase "Runyon-esque" into the cultural lexicon (the show is adapted from the work of journalist and writer Damon Runyon), and features one of the most memorable of all Broadway scores. It's a warm, funny show that colorfully evokes the shadowy underworld of a previous New York while simultaneously poking loving fun at it. (For a detailed plot synopsis of the show, which features a now-famous cast of archetypal characters like Sky Masterson, Sarah Brown, Nathan Detroit, and Miss Adelaide, click here.)
But all of Guys and Dolls's warmth and charm is absent here, held at bay by director Des McAnuff, who fails to embrace it. The rock 'n' roll razzmatazz that has made many of his previous Broadway productions successes ill suits a show of this vintage. The open-hearted sentiments expressed in Loesser's lovely songs seem to make McAnuff uncomfortable, and his direction reflects that. It's as if he's fighting a misanthropic urge to make fun of the show the whole way through, a fight that he doesn't always win: the production is laden with a collection of dubious Noo Yawk accents and weighed down by cartoonish production design that suggests what Warren Beatty's film of Dick Tracy might look like if it were a Vegas floor show.
(McAnuff also takes an unnecessary liberty with the book by introducing a new character—Runyon himself—who glides through the action silently observing all that eventually becomes fodder for his writing. Harmless, but distracting.)
With such a lack of sincerity at the center of the production's creative heart, it's no wonder that this Guys and Dolls is horribly miscast. It almost feels as if McAnuff picked the names of his star-studded cast out of a hat, without regard for whether or not they were equipped for their roles. Don't get me wrong, the show's leading players—Craig Bierko, Kate Jennings Grant, Oliver Platt, and Lauren Graham—are all proven talents, but those talents aren't a good match for this show. Or maybe they just aren't put to good use here. It's hard to tell. Called upon to anchor this rudderless production, Bierko and Graham look like they're lost at sea. Platt, single-handedly trying to carry the show on his back, overcompensates miserably. And, Grant puts in workmanlike effort without a hint of personality.
Most of the cast follows suit, going through the motions while looking like their minds and hearts are elsewhere. Only Mary Testa, who plays the minor supporting role of General Cartwright, comes through with an enjoyable and convincingly larger-than-life performance. A reliable veteran of the musical comedy world, she hints at what this production of Guys and Dolls could be because she appears to be the only person on hand who understands what it is.
I could go on, but I think the point has been made. Instead, I'll give the last word about Guys and Dolls to my companion who accompanied me on the night I attended. About the performances, she had only this to say: "They're all in a different show. And not the one we came to see."