Has there ever been a more perfect musical comedy than Guys and Dolls? If so, I’m hard pressed to identify it. With a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows and a score by Frank Loesser, it seems like the ultimate in musical theater integration — so expertly crafted that, 54 years after the original Broadway production opened, the show is still the standard by which most other musical comedies are judged. It’s so solid, so enjoyable, and so real that its brilliance is clearly evident even in an imperfect production such as the one that’s now on view at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey.
As directed by Stafford Arima, this mounting of Guys and Dolls is more than a little reminiscent of the highly successful 1992 Broadway revival, which was helmed by Jerry Zaks. Arima has used Tony Walton’s sets (as designed for the national tour), the same style of costumes (only a costume coordinator, Randall Klein, is credited in the program), and a number of the musical alterations that were made for the ’92 version (mostly in terms of the new dance music, provided by Mark Hummel).
Retaining the look of the Zaks revival was perhaps a mistake, as it’s not supported very well here. The sets and costumes are of the Technicolor cartoon variety, real but unreal, yet Arima’s production can’t find the zany, breathless energy needed to make that concept work. Much of the acting and staging is low-key and the choreography (by Patricia Wilcox) is underpowered; this production’s “Runyonland” opening is the first truly boring interpretation of the number that I’ve ever seen. As for the musical direction (by Tom Helm at the performance I saw, although Vicki Carter will handle the remainder of the run through July 18), it had such a sluggish pace and feel as to make the 1996 JAY recording of the complete score sound caffeinated.
Even so, this Guys and Dolls is entertaining because the musical itself is so strong. The competing love stories of (1) gambler Sky Masterson and Salvation Army worker Sarah Brown (Robert Cuccioli and Kate Baldwin) and (2) Nathan Detroit, impresario of the “oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York,” and his 14-year fiancée Adelaide (Michael Mastro and Karen Ziemba) still come through brilliantly. Tales with a “bad guy gets reformed by good girl” sensibility always seem to be in style, and that subject has never been handled in a funnier, more musically astute way than it is in this show.
Though Mastro is a bit more like Sam Levene than Nathan Lane in the singing department and Ziemba’s vocal limitations are more noticeable here than usual, the central quartet is very funny and likeable. Cuccioli is an almost ideal Sky, doing some of the best work I’ve seen from him, and Baldwin brings a nice innocence and a lovely voice to Sarah. Bob Dorian lends grace and class to the role of Sarah’s grandfather and fellow Save-a-Soul Mission worker Arvide Abernathy.
Of course, they and the rest of the cast have the benefit of singing one of the musical theater’s finest scores, including wonderful romantic duets such as “I’ll Know” and “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” (both for Sarah and Sky) and the still-hilarious “Adelaide’s Lament” (in which she nurses a cold that she’s had, not coincidentally, for as long as she’s been engaged). Other highlights are Sky’s exciting “Luck Be a Lady,” the zippy title song, and the mock-revival showstopper “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat.” The latter two numbers and the “Fugue for Tinhorns”) are led by Robert Creighton: He’s energetic as Nicely-Nicely Johnson (the role originated onstage by Stubby Kaye), tapping into the character’s cartoonish qualities in a way that most of the other performers don’t quite manage. Tia Speros, as the Salvation Army’s General Cartwright, is another standout.
Even if this production of Guys and Dolls could do with another shot or two of adrenaline, it’s still a great amount of fun and enjoyable from beginning to end.