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CCM’s “Guys and Dolls” Is A Risky Bet

Review by Spenser Smith of Guys and Dolls: CCM Musical Theatre

Director Diane Lala states in her Director’s Note that Guys and Dolls “has been saluted as the perfect musical comedy.” The production now on stage at the Patricia Corbett Auditorium should take note.

Guys and Dolls, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, premiered in 1950. The musical is based on two short stories by Damon Runyon.The original Broadway production ran for 1200 performances and won the Tony Award for Best Musical. The show was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

These are awfully big shoes to fill. A “perfect musical comedy” with a heart. The story focuses on two relationships. We first meet Nathan Detroit (Matt Copley), the gambler tasked with finding a new venue for the “floating crap game.” He has to keep his dice habits away from Lieutenant Brannigan (Stone Mountain), and his eager-to-wed fiance Miss Adelaide (Anya Axel). Copley and Axel are a fine pair. Dialect coaches D’Arcy Smith and Kate Webster could have helped Copley by urging him to tone down his dialect. His dedication to the accuracy makes some lines unintelligible and that small criticism was amplified opening night with myriad sound issues. Axel couldn’t escape the soundboard on the fritz, but her strong singing voice needs no amplification. Her Adelaide caught me off guard. The role was written specifically for Vivian Blaine, the only lead actor to star in both major original productions and the 1955 movie. Twenty three years after her death, the role Blaine originated sixty eight years ago is her most notable triumph and the role for which she is most recognizable. Why? Take a look at the film. Blaine absolutely chews the scenery. She gets a laugh out of every possible moment. Most of the punchlines in the ninety-minute first act at CCM fall completely flat and the opening night audience was eerily quiet throughout. The relationship between Nathan and Adelaide should be funny. It’s supposed to be the polar opposite of the tepid courting between Sarah and Sky. Copley and Axel are both fine actors and I am not one to promote carbon-copy performances, but their interpretations of these iconic comedic roles leaves the scenery, designed by Thomas C. Umfrid, completely whole.

The other relationship involves Sarah Brown (Aria Braswell), who leads the Save A Soul Mission with her older and wiser confidante Arvide Abernathy (Dain Alan Paige). What she really doesn’t know is that her mission will be the subject of the next bet. Nathan Detroit is in need of $1,000 to host the latest crap game. Detroit decides his only way to get it is to bet Sky Masterson (Frankie Thams) that he can’t get Sarah to go to Havana with him. Masterson, a suave gambler who doesn’t lose a bet, takes him up on the offer. Braswell, an excellent soprano, begs the sound board operator to leave her microphone off when she belts out the “I’ll Know” tag. She can really wail. Thams, as Masterson, must charm his way into Sarah’s heart. He has to win the bet, after all. In their first scene together, Thams came off as brash and even mean. Remember, Sky needs something. If Sarah wasn’t put off by his unending advances from the start, she is now. Things improve from there, both for the characters and the performances. One thing is for sure, it feels like Sarah and Sky really like one another and I appreciated the honesty in that dynamic. I was genuinely glad Braswell’s Sarah wasn’t scared off by Thams’ Sky in that first mission scene.

The second half felt much more relaxed. The pace that dragged heavily for much of the first act seemed to pick up a little bit. Two moments most definitely did not disappoint. The Crapshooters Ballet, choreographed by Director Diane Lala, was fresh and fun. I have to point out it was awkward that they danced that whole number silently. Not unlike the dance in the Havana club, there was no ambient noise (hoots and hollers) from the ensemble. Since it went on for so long it seemed like a deliberate choice and one that should be reconsidered. Probably most notable is everyone’s favorite eleven o’clock number “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ The Boat” sung by Nicely Nicely Johnson (Nick Berninger). When Nicely is forced to testify during the mission meeting, his off-the-cuff storytelling becomes deliciously entertaining. The swift choreo and stratospheric vocals are in their prime. I have only seen this number staged with Sky, Nathan and the gamblers, not the entire ensemble. The idea of making this a full production number is a welcomed change.

Tickets for Guys and Dolls, running through October 27, can be purchased by calling 513-556-4183.