KPBS AIRDATE: December 28, 1993
When “Guys and Dolls” opened in 1950, it received what might be the most unanimously ecstatic set of reviews in Broadway history. It got about the same response in its 1992 revival. Both productions swooped up an armload of Tony awards. People then and now hail it as the perfect musical comedy. So what happened to it in its trek across the country?
The national touring company just settled in for a brief run at the magnificent Orange County Performing Arts Center. It’s the same production, under the inspired direction of the much-heralded Jerry Zaks, with Tony Walton’s bright, cartoony, Dick Tracy sets and William Ivey Long’s incredible, Crayola-colored costumes. So far so fabulous. But the cast changes put a damper on everything.
The comic characters just aren’t funny, and not one person on the stage knows how to pronounce Damon Runyon’s tough, angular, overblown gangster-like Noo Yawk street talk. This sounds more like downtown Boise than midtown Manhattan. The biggest disappointment comes with the biggest name — Lorna Luft, daughter to Judy, half-sister to Liza. As the perennially farschnotzed fiancée, Miss Adelaide, she has at least two of the show’s fifteen unforgettable songs. In both, the accent is critical: “Take Back Your Mink, take back your poils” and “Adelaide’s Lament,” in which she sniffles that, psychosomatically speaking, after a 14-year engagement, “a poison could develop a cold.” Adelaide should only throw ‘poils’ before swine like these, not ‘pearls.’ Luft sings all right, and she squeals excessively, but she isn’t funny, and her character should be hilarious.
Likewise her interminably-betrothed, Nathan Detroit, organizer of “the oldest established permanent floating crap game in Noo Yawk.” David Garrison is more a nuch-schlepper than a crap-shooter. Their scenes should be a howl, but they’re just ho-hum.
Same goes for the young ingenues: Sky Masterson, the suave, high-stakes roller, and Sarah Brown, the drab, Salvation Army doll. He should be cool, not frozen. She should be stony, then sexy. No such luck with this lady… or her guy. There’s no evolution, and no chemistry between them. The one really positive thing that can be said is that everyone sings really well. But the principals can’t act and barely move. With all the triple threats around — that is, actor-singer-dancers — why Zaks picked this cast I’ll never know.
It’s hard to mess up one of the funniest, cleverest, wittiest books and scores in the American musical canon. It’s not a mess, really. Only a disappointment. Very colorful, great singing, a few sure-bet show-stopping dance numbers, like “Luck Be a Lady” and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.” Truly, there’s not a clunker in Frank Loesser’s whole score; “Guys and Dolls” should make an audience laugh till its sides ache and applaud till its palms are sore. This production isn’t side-splitting, but it is eye-popping. And it’s plopped into magnificent surroundings, Orange County’s glorious Segerstrom Hall; that alone is worth the trip.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.