Friday, February 27, 2009

Stars But Hollow - Guys and Dolls - Musical Review

Guys and Dolls - Nederlander Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY - *** (out of 5 stars)
Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser, Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, Directed by Des McAnuff, Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo
Currently in Previews, Opens March 1st 2009
Note: Review is based on an earlier preview. Performance may have changed since.

Now, I'm going to fess up right away and probably admit that the new revival for Guys and Dolls probably doesn't deserve the stars I've given it, but it's amazing what my devotion to Lauren Graham for being in Gilmore Girls can do to my logical mind. It's also amazing what one bring-down-the-house number ("Sit Down You're Rocking The Boat") and one scene stealing performance from Mary Testa (Xanadu) can almost make up for the rest of the underwhelming show. This new Broadway revival isn't terrible, but it's not fantastic and for a classic musical like Guys and Dolls, it should be fantastic.

Granted, it has the unlucky position of following the now legendary mid 90's revival starring Nathan Lane, Faith Prince and Peter Galagher. Luckily, I've never seen it (though I have the Cast Recording and is the version I know this show by) so I can't really compare. I did see the recent London revival from the Donmar Warehouse that starred Ewan McGregor (as Sky) and Jane Krakowski (as Adelaide) but I didn't love that darkened revival (directed by Michael Grandage) that much either (though the stars, which also included Jenna Russell (the recent revival of Sunday in the Park with George) were awesome). In fact, I have yet to see a great version of the show to make me truly love it as much as the cast recording has.

Canada's Stratford Festival Artistic Director Des McAnuff (Jersey Boys, Caesar and Cleopatra) directs this unnecessary revival that manages to stay afloat due to our innate fascination of watching TV star Lauren Graham sing on stage (and to realize that she can, and well, may I add).

While the other two "stars" are less exciting, Oliver Platt and Craig Bierko (above) do fine as Nathan Detroit and Sky Masterson (respectively). It's newcomer (at least to fame) Kate Jennings Grant (below) as Sarah Brown who really shines and along with Graham, gives the dolls an edge over the guys.

The show itself seems hollow somehow. It seems very plainly directed and while that's not a particularly bad thing, it lacks the sparkly needed. The new Broadway production feels like a very big community theatre production that just happens to have some superb performers that luckily buoy the whole show.

I usually love the choreography from Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys, Saved) but even with hot chorus boys Nick Adams (he of the larger biceps than Mario Lopez in A Chorus Line) and John Selya (last summer's Encore's Damn Yankees), it felt messy. However, I realized there were some fantastic and clever moves in the choreography, but the large cast had to dance on a cramped stage that was crowded out by an overdesigned (yet simplistic looking, and not in a good way) set.

The set, designed by Robert Brill (The Story of My Life, Cabaret) manages to make the stage seem really cramped with large industrial beams flanking the sides, making a smaller stage frame to use. This would be a great idea if the musical had 4 people in it, but it doesn't, and with his generic V shaped stage design, it allows a small usable space in the front centre. Granted, my seats were partial view at the side of the orchestra with horrible sightlines, but since the "beams" and two side platforms that come out into the boxes are barely used or needed, a lot of it seemed superfluous. The rear video screen with animated (trying to be realistic) backdrops becomes a crutch for actual "scenery".

McAnuff does at least centralize and centre all the action towards the front of the stage (the London version had quite a deep stage and a lot of it was at the back and felt distant, both physically and psychologically) but with all the small set pieces rolling in and out, the musical felt like a series of best-of scenes instead of flowing from one to the next song.

But let's get back to the stars!

While Lauren Graham's Adelaide still felt a little like Lauren Graham (especially if you've seen her in interviews) PLAYING Adelaide, at least it was nice to see her become the anti-Lorelai Gilmore, a silly naive and ditzy blonde who works as a showgirl as she awaits for a marriage proposal from the lying Nathan Detroit. It's not a perfect performance but there's a relief and joy of watching Graham's Adelaide, knowing that the TV star could do it, and do it quite well. Graham milked all the comedy she could and her singing was surprisingly taut. I could totally see her repeat Matthew Broderick's career trajectory and find new life as a musical theatre star (not that I wouldn't want to see her back on TV, and in fact, already has a new pilot Let It Go in development).

While their love chemistry doesn't sizzle, Graham and Oliver Platt seem to really be getting their comedic timing to gel (especially after early buzz that Platt seemed totally miscast) and Platt's performance was far better than I anticipated. Again, I'm not sure it was anywhere as close to Nathan Lane's but Platt manages to hold his own and his quirky turn as Detroit managed to amuse me and keep the plot going.

Craig Bierko does a decent job with Sky Masterson but as a non-fan, he didn't sway me to become one, but at least I didn't dislike his performance. His pairing with Kate Jennings Grant though at least had more chemistry than Graham and Platt, so their quick love affair is a bit more believable. Her drunken behavior in Havana was cute and hilarious and turned that whole scene (usually not my favorite part of the show) into a great trip.

The show also luckily has a strong ensemble with Tituss Burgess (The Little Mermaid) as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Steve Rosen (Spamalot) as Benny Southstreet and Spencer Moses as Rusty Charlie. While Burgess gets to steal the show later with "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat", I really found myself loving Steve Rosen's Benny Southstreet. He plays it perfectly and has a great voice, and perfectly balances it all without stealing attention away from others, while never getting lost in the shuffle.

Jim Ortlieb (above with Grant, Roswell) as Arvide Abernathy, Glenn Fleshler (Spring Awakening) as Big Jule, Jim Walton as Harry the Horse, and Adam LeFevre (Recount) as Lt. Brannigan are notable in the male ensemble, but it's Mary Testa who takes the small role of General Cartwright (I think she's in maybe 3 scenes at most) and STEALS THE SHOW. I know it's an overused expression, but she takes "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" away from Burgess (who is already doing a pretty good job with it) and makes the show, for a brief moment, into a must see musical.

Alas, while the song leaves the musical on a supremely high note, the quick tie-it-all-up-in-a-happy-ending resolution (which has always been a problem in the book, imho) that actually ends the shows, deflates a lot of the energy Testa manages to pump up.

Alas, while any fan of Gilmore Girls will want to see Lauren Graham's terrific Broadway Musical debut, and Mary Testa and Kate Jennings Grant totally shine, the overall show seems very pedestrian and average and missing some internal soul. The new Guys & Dolls is watchable and enjoyable enough, but not a must see.

Vance at


Esther said...

Great review, Vance. I was really looking forward to this since I've never seen Guys and Dolls on stage. But the cast didn't excite me. I've never even seen The Gilmore Girls.

Jill said...

*Nodnod* -- I mostly agree with your assessment. This is my favorite show of all time so to see it feel little better than a community theatre production is a disappointment. My take is (blogwhore alert) here.