There are some shows that are done to death, nevertheless we love them anyway. This is probably why they are done to death. Frank Loesser's "Guys and Dolls" is definitely one of those shows. I've seen it several times (including one production I consider the quintessential one, but we'll get to that in a minute) but I always find something to love. Well, the 5th Avenue has dusted off the old girl and while it was one of the most technically proficient productions I've seen, it seemed to lack some of the heart and sass it demands.
Based on the story and characters of Damon Runyon, this classic follows the seedy denizens of old New York as they gamble and booze their way through life, much to the chagrin of the local mission and its leader Miss Sarah (Katherine Strohmaier). She is determined to save all their souls. Meanwhile gambler Nathan Detroit (Daniel C. Levine) needs to find a place for his floating crap game much to the chagrin of his long suffering fiancée of 14 years, Miss Adelaide (Billie Wildrick). So in order to raise the money for the place, he bets suave gambler Sky Masterson (Brandon O'Neill) that he cannot take the sophisticated doll, Miss Sarah, to Havana. Come on, we all know it. It's gangsters and hoochie dancers and one of the best shows ever written with songs that have become standards like "Luck Be a Lady", "Adelaide's Lament" and "I've Never Been in Love Before". Which is why it's been revived so many times including my quintessential production I saw in 1993 as it toured through town with the amazing Lorna Luft as Miss Adelaide. Everything was spot on there from the cast to the costumes to a "Crapshooter's Dance" that left me breathless.
So what did that show have that this one didn't? Like I said, heart. Oh, it's not completely void of it. Everyone has their characters and knows their intentions, but it all just seemed to be a little too polished to be from gritty New York City. Plus for some reason the tempo of many of the numbers was just plain slow. And that along with some very presentational dialog delivery just kind of sucked the wind out of some of the charm the show should have.
But like I said, technically proficient. The set by Kate Sutton-Johnson is amazing and one of the most innovative I've seen. The choreography by Noah Racey is outstanding especially the "Havana" number which was not just fun but managed to tell its own little story. And the cast has some of the richest, most swoon inducing voices on this planet. O'Neill's voice, especially during "I've Never Been in Love Before" makes you melt. Although I wish he could loosen up a bit. He's supposed to be the coolest guy on that stage but just seemed a bit stiff. Strohmaier is supposed to be a bit stiff to begin with and then cuts loose and when she cuts loose she CUTS LOOSE! Match that with a gorgeous voice and Miss Sarah shines. But my favorites for the evening (and these characters have a tendency to walk away with the show) had to be Levine and Wildrick as Nathan and Adelaide. Levine puts his own twitchy little spin on Detroit complete with his little tick every time someone mentions marriage. And the always incredible Wildrick nails every aspect of the character. She's funny when she needs to be, sweet when she needs to be, thoughtful, smart, and all around fabulous. And the girl can sell a number like nobody's business. And the two of them together amounted for some killer chemistry with impeccable voices. And I should also mention Todd Buonopane as Nicely Nicely who turns in a fun and rollicking version of "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat".
So with a stellar cast and ensemble, stunning sets and choreography and being just plain one of the most wonderful shows out there, I should be gushing. But when you've seen the rendition that brings what can only be described as "it", it's tough to compare anything else. And this production, as good as it is, simply didn't have "it".
"Guys and Dolls" plays at the 5th Avenue Theatre through June 5th. For tickets or information contact the 5th Avenue box office at 206-625-1900 or visit them online at www.5thavenue.org.