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Guys and Dolls

Des McAnuff's uneven production of this classic Frank Loesser musical is a simultaneously razzmatazz and tawdry affair.

Oliver Platt and Lauren Graham
in Guys and Dolls
(© Carol Rosegg)
As America endures what might be called "The Great Recession," it's fascinating that in the revival of the classic musical Guys and Dolls, now at the Nederlander Theatre, director Des McAnuff has shifted the action of the musical to "The Great Depression." McAnuff serves up a simultaneously razzmatazz and tawdry affair, which, despite Frank Loesser's dazzling score and Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows' top-drawer zingers, never fully transports audiences to a mythic New York where a kind of perpetual sense of hopefulness exists, even when things are at their worst.

The dual tones of the production are apparent upon entering the theater. Cascading dice rendered in bright neon are center stage, flanked by huge steel girders -- the sort that support elevated trains. Robert Brill's scenic design extends into the house, and overall, the effect is sort of a cross between a Group Theatre drama and the musical extravaganza 42nd Street.

The first notes of the overture -- a tuba's low wail in Bruce Coughlin's new, big band and swing orchestrations -- confirm the show's darker hues. And when "Runyonland" -- the dance introduction to this fabled New York -- begins, Dustin O'Neill's frenetic computer-generated projections of city streets and interiors, reminiscent of Winslow Homer's paintings, back a variety of mini-scenes, from a bank heist to a rigged boxing match. These vignettes -- choreographed by Sergio Trujillo with an eye toward both their comic and dramatic value -- are observed by a character newly, and gratuitously, introduced for this production, Runyan (Raymond Del Barrio) himself, who periodically wanders on.

Given the production's dichotomous tone, it's little surprise that the show's leads turn in uneven and contradictory performances. As Nathan Detroit, who spends much of the show trying to find a place to hold the floating crap game he runs, Oliver Platt initially seems to be channeling both Nathan Lane (who starred in the last Broadway revival of this show) and Harvey Fierstein. It's a curious combination that evens out in the second act, when Nathan's on the ropes with Adelaide (Lauren Graham), a hoofer who's been his fiancé for 14 years. Graham, wisely forgoing the nasal little girl voice that has long been Adelaide's hallmark and looking stunning in Paul Tazewell's often whimsical period costumes, fares somewhat better. There's a sort of dimwitted cleverness at work in her performance that endears.

Alongside this comic on-and-off romance is the unlikely one between Sarah (Kate Jennings Grant), of the "Save a Soul Mission," and gambler Sky Masterson (Craig Bierko). Both Grant and Bierko sing some of Loesser's most sumptuous love songs with beauty and power, but elsewhere their performances vacillate curiously. Grant wavers between strident steeliness and sappy dewiness, making Sarah seem almost schizophrenic. As Sky, who's bet that he can get this "doll" to go to Havana with him, Bierko is less variable, but his efforts to deliver Sky's more sensitive side occasionally seem at odds with the character's more hardnosed traits.

The performances from Broadway veterans in secondary roles are equally mixed. While Steve Rosen is terrific as one of Nathan's flunkies and Tituss Burgess builds beautifully to a full-out gospel rendition of "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat," Mary Testa gives a strangely over-the-top dowager-like turn as General Cartwright -- although she scores some of the evening's biggest laughs and loudest applause when the general's ultra-prim exterior evaporates to reveal something quite different. There are certainly many other entertaining moments in the show, but one can't help but wish that this musical provided a truly consistent means of escape from the world at large.


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