The quintessential American musical Guys and Dolls, based on stories by New York writer Damon Runyon, plays like a kind of Dickensian comic book of America. It’s a New York peopled by two vying types, the gambler versus the evangelical — a standoff between those who want to be left to their vices and those who want to save you. Any of this sound familiar? Maine State Music Theatre presents a bright and snazzy production of this American classic, under the direction of DJ Salisbury.
A super opening sequence, snappily choreographed by Salisbury, introduces the multicolored world of Guys and Dolls: It’s a Broadway ecology crawling with tourists and jaded tour guides, streakers and nuns, soul-saving do-gooders and, of course, gamblers in a prism of plaid suits — guys with fedoras, racing cards, and giddily cartoonish New York accents. What do the guys want? All Nathan Detroit (James Beaman) wants is to find a place for his illegal craps game. When high-stakes gambler Sky Masterson (Stephen Mark Lukas) turns up, Nathan, needing capital, makes him a bet involving the unlikely seduction of missionary Sarah Brown (Kristen Hahn). All Sky wants is to win bets, so the bet is on. And what do the dolls want? Sarah yearns to save the city’s souls, and then she yearns to save Sky. And Nathan’s long-term fiancée, burlesque dancer Adelaide (the beloved Charis Leos, back again at MSMT), just wants to get married already.
The settings of this New York are funhouse archetypes on MSMT’s stage — its Broadway is painted from low angles, so we look up-up-up; Adelaide dances at a decadent, velvety-red Hot Box; Sarah’s mission is pale turquoise and purple inside; the light behind the city skyline changes with the key of the orchestra. Characters are sharply drawn and color-saturated — Nathan and Sky resplendent in double-breasted pinstripes, the missionaries glowing with righteousness in red, cops in blue, guys and dolls in rainbows of dresses and plaid. Salisbury swirls the pot of these colors beautifully on stage in chases, dance numbers and even acrobatics, mingled with the squeaking and tittering of the dolls, the broad-accented banter of the guys.
Lukas’s Sky moves through the city like he owns it; his voice is American cool — smooth, savvy, effortless. He and Hahn, both with dark hair and sweet little forelocks, pair nicely. Hahn’s Sarah has a lucent voice and an earnestness that opens with telling ease into sensuality, once Sky takes her to Havana and sneaks alcohol into her milk. Their chemistry has an innocence and awkwardness that foils perfectly against the resigned and ironic yet nevertheless magnetic Nathan and Adelaide. Beaman’s Nathan has sly timing, wit, and “why me” antics; and Leos, always a favorite in this theater, gives Adelaide a wryness and chutzpah that let her character steer clear of pathos. Her voice is as big and as pricelessly comedic as ever.
Standout scenes of MSMT’s Guys and Dolls include the play’s climactic craps game in the sewer, conjured with a striking forced-perspective backdrop of purple and indigo tunnels, the guys spinning, lunging, and even doing back flips. Sky’s signature number “Luck Be a Lady” is taut with style and desire; and the famous gospel number “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” led by Steve Gagliastro’s swell Nicely-Nicely, is rousing and contagiously kinetic, a tongue-in-cheek communion of gamblers and missionaries crammed into the tiny mission.
Ultimately, of course, both sides win: not only do we get both gambling and virtue; we get gambling in the service of virtue. What myth could be more enduringly American than that?
Guys and Dolls | Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser; Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows. Directed and choreographed by DJ Salisbury | Through July 15 | At Maine State Music Theatre, Pickard Theater, 1 Bath Rd, Brunswick | $59-80 |
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