Updated: Jun 11
It’s an utterly irresistible good time! Every song’s a banger in a story that's pure sass on a stick!
JUNE 9, 2023 — NEWPORT BEACH
A perennial favorite since it first opened on Broadway in 1950, “Guys and Dolls” was destined for the big screen when Samuel Goldwyn paid $1 million (a record at the time) to secure the rights, then financed it out-of-pocket for $5.5 million. He knew a sure thing when he saw it, and was proven right when the multi-Tony-winning play became an Oscar-nominated movie in 1955. The film crystallized the overripe bustling aesthetic of the show, which became the norm in most subsequent stagings.
No case really needs to be made for the 1950 Damon Runyon adaptation, however, considered by many the best musical of all time. The wisecracks and situations in Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling’s libretto still land, and Frank Loesser’s songs remain a marvel of wit and artistry. This indelible gem from musical theater’s golden age is just that good. But really, when you have Frank Loesser’s timeless songs and writers Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows’ rib-tickling snarkiness, you need very little else to be a winner.
Yet Newport Theatre Arts Center in Newport Beach thinks there’s even more gold to be mined from the tale of inveterate gamblers and long-suffering molls. For starters, setting it in Runyon’s post-Depression era milieu brings desperation to the hopes of making a killing in a crap game. And Director Holly Jones clearly wants us to hear the author’s distinctively elevated Gotham narrative with new ears, and in the context of real characters’ real problems. So, she sets them starkly against the New York backdrop, and lets ’em rip. The show is set to run for two more weeks at the historic NTAC theater atop the hill in Newport Beach.
As the ensemble launches the show, taking the stage in a pattern of grids suggesting the citizens on the sidewalks of midtown Manhattan — petty thieves, gamblers and grifters with names like Benny Southstreet, Rusty Charlie and Nicely-Nicely Johnson — into their midst also comes the Mission Band, led by the pious Miss Sarah Brown, who seeks to save sinners in the daytime when she should be looking at night.
“Pleasant as a doll’s company may be, she must always take second place to aces back-to-back.” That’s silky Sky Masterson (Tom Patrick Proprofsky) talking, and his approach pays off best in an opposites-attract dance with mission tambourine-slinger Miss Brown (Michelle de la Peña), their mutual desire for romance with an “other” poignantly detailed. The lyrics to “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” carry unanticipated ache and joy in this rendition.
That’s Sky's usual rule of thumb when it comes to women, so named for the limit he places on his wagers. He happens to be there on account of a $1000 wager (quite a sum of money 75 years ago) he made with accomplice Nathan Detroit — betting him that he can woo and win the heart of the incorruptible mission dame by flying her to Havana for dinner. When Sarah agrees to go on the date, they unexpectedly fall in love.
Mr. Proprofsky’s duet with Ms. Peña, “I’ll Know,” demonstrates a rich baritone opposite the latter’s effulgent soprano. The two enjoy an amiable if not torrid chemistry that comes to a boil in Cuba, where she cuts loose in a drunken barroom brawl. Moments later, she seems to relish the chance to let her hair down in her spirited solo, “If I Were a Bell,” with its clever list of metaphors transforming Sarah before our eyes.
As the ever-scheming Nathan, Bob Fetes stands out in a company of veteran actors with a cartoonish performance that seems to splice together Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Alive with a paradoxically hapless energy, it’s all he can do not to upstage his co-stars.
With direction by Holly Jones and vivid scenery by Jim Huffman, the show has been ecstatically received and hit the jackpot with this production. One of the interesting thing about “Guys and Dolls” is how beautifully cohesive all its elements happen to be. This musical fable of gamblers, hustlers and Salvation Army saviors has a very special charm in its very fresh take on the classic, which, pared down or dolled up, remains as wry, as funny, and as entrancing as ever.
The book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows has the tough flavor and bittersweet attitude of Damon Runyon, and also manages to center on the two love stories: Lisa A. Rios is a total delight as the classic "well-known fiancée," Miss Adelaide, with psychosomatic post-nasal drip, along with Mr. Fetes, who is both jaunty and sweetly vicious, scoring beautifully as the much unmarried Nathan Detroit, that entrepreneur of the lower depths.
Yet the whole cast has a very definite style, from the lovers, Michelle de la Peña’s “you sure are cute but you just can’t shoot” Sarah Brown, a girl with an adventurous side waiting to escape, and Tom Patrick Proprofsky’s quintessential, "smooth-as-velvet" Broadway gambler Sky Masterson, who owns the stage delivering "Luck Be a Lady.” Highlighting the primary character roles are the trio of Daniel Berlin’s Nicely‐Nicely (“Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat"), Cameron Patrick Murray as Benny Southstreet and Phillip Schnell as Rusty Charlie. They open the show with "The Fugue for Tin Horns.”
Other notable roles include Cliff Senior’s Arvide Abernathy (gentle Irish Salvationist grandfather to Sarah, who with "More I Cannot Wish You" reveals one of the best voices on stage) and Ian MacGregor as Lt. Brannigan (always on the lookout for a New York crap game). And it was Winner Winner Chicken Dinner for Julie Kirkman as General Cartwright who rolled a natural as head of the Salvation Army; Bobby Lux excelled as Harry the Horse, and Terry Vickrey was a big win as Big Jule, a tough gambler from Chicago.
Additional players in the story were Cheryl DeKeyser portraying Vernon (also the dance captain), Lanette Gutman playing a mob of roles, including the drunk and a wiseguy called Liverlips Louis, Jennifer Ann Marks as Ferguson, Victoria Leigh Serra as Allison, Elana Harnack as Mimi, Alexis Slear as Martha, and Mandy Kuhn in the ensemble.
But it is the songs that are the clear spread winner. More and more it seems obvious that the pickling factor in a musical — the element that keeps it alive — is the music. Mr. Loesser's score has a bounce that jumps off the stage. Song after song emerges with a sort of pungent charm, a joie de vivre, and the words and the music are beautifully matched. So, when you consider the score — songs like “Bushel and a Peck,” “Adelaide's Lament,” “Take Back Your Mink,” “If I Were a Bell,” “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” “I've Never Been in Love Before,” you’ll simply have to agree: They just don't write musicals like this anymore.
NEWPORT THEATRE ARTS CENTER, PRESENTS: GUYS AND DOLLS, A Musical Fable of Broadway; Based on a Story and Characters by DAMON RUNYON; Music and Lyrics Composed by FRANK LOESSER; Book by JO SWERLING and ABE BURROWS; Directed by HOLLY JONES; Produced by MICHELLE BENDETTI; Assistant Director/Dramaturg REBECCA RUBINO; Music Director JENNIFER D’ONOFRIO; Choreographer JACKIE MELBON; Stage Manager KRISTY TAKACS; Set Designer/Graphics JIM HUFFMAN; Lighting/Sound Designer JOSHUA SERRANO; Costume Designer JENNY WENTWORTH; Wigs CLIFF SENIOR.
WITH: DANIEL BERLIN • CHERYL DEKEYSER • MICHELLE DE LA PENA • BOB FETES • VICTORIA GROSKREUTZ • LANETTE GUTMAN • ELANA HARNACK • JULIE KIRKMAN • MANDY KUHN • IAN MACGREGOR • BOBBY LUX • JENNIFER ANN MARKS • CAMERON PATRICK MURRAY • TOM PATRICK PROPROFSKY • LIZA A. RIOS • GABRIELLE TRESLER • PHILLIP SCHNELL • CLIFF SENIOR • VICTORIA LEIGH SERRA • ALEXIS SLEAR • TERRY VICKREY
“GUYS AND DOLLS” runs June 2nd through June 25th with performances at Laguna Playhouse, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8PM; Sundays at 2PM. Additional performance Saturdays, June 24th at 2PM. Tickets range from $25-30 and can be purchased at www.ntatickets.com or by calling (949) 631-0288.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Chuck Weinberg