Review: Guys & Dolls

It is a dangerous decision when a creative team decides to “re-imagine” a musical, especially a well-known classic. Certainly CHICAGO and CABARET stand out as recent revivals that were both re-conceived and met with high praise. But it is a risky move and doesn’t always work. When TUTS announced that they would be giving their GUYS & DOLLS revival a Latin flair, I must admit I was a bit concerned. How would this change an already great musical and its story? Would it work? Last night, I got my answer.

In a pre-show curtain speech, Theatre Under the Stars Artistic Director Dan Knechtges explained that the organization is committed to bringing classics like GUYS & DOLLS to Houston but when possible, examining these classic stories through a new lens. To that end, he continued, they have moved the action of the story a few blocks away from its original location to set it in a more Spanish-influenced neighborhood. The appearance of the Piragua cart from the recent TUTS production  of IN THE HEIGHTS, a clever easter egg on its own, suggests we might be seeing a GUYS & DOLLS set in Washington Heights.

From the first few moments of the famous Runyonland sequence, the show sprinkles in bits of Latin-infused dancing and occasional dialogue or asides spoken in Spanish. There are also small changes to the story, like the bet of cheesecake vs. strudel changed to cheesecake vs. flan and the Hot Box dance club changed to the Papa Caliente, which for those who do not speak Spanish, translates to the “Hot Potato.” Most of the characters are also Hispanic and speak in various degrees of accented Spanish. The setting, as Mr. Knechtges explained, has also clearly been moved to a different part of New York City than previous productions. There is also a major change to the casting of the feared mobster Big Julie, one which I will not spoil.

So does it work? For the most part, yes — and very well. The acting is mostly strong, especially from the four leads. Madison Claire Parks perhaps has the most gorgeous voice, bringing a lovely soprano to Sister Sarah Brown, the mission leader who tried to not fall in love with a sinner/gambler. My only small complaint with her performance was her enunciation during her first song, “I’ll Know.” I felt that some of the lyrics, especially the title, were difficult to discern at times. She fared much better during other numbers, including “If I Were a Bell.” But this is a minor quibble and her gorgeous voice soars through the Hobby Center. Michelle Aravena is very good as Miss Adelaide, the long (14 years) suffering fiancé of craps game organizer Nathan Detroit. But her performance is a great example of the major problem I had with this re-imagining of GUYS & DOLLS – there were times that the accents overpowered the lyrics to the detriment of the story. Adelaide’s first big number is “Adelaide’s Lament” and when performed right, can be a show stopper. But due to some heavily accented words in her delivery, it was hard for even someone who knows the lyrics to understand the song and what she was trying to say. To me, when the story suffers because of a creative choice, it should be re-considered. I don’t believe that the Latin influence should be removed, but the singing should be done in a less-accented way to allow for the lyrics to shine through. I had little to no trouble understanding the book scenes, even with the accents. The problem clearly lies within the songs, which are some of the best in the musical theatre canon. There were also a few times, especially early on, where the accents seemed to be a bit forced or over-pronounced.

The best example of combining the accent and the singing can be found in Omar Lopez-Cepero’s Sky Masterson. He has a beautiful singing voice and the perfect look and charisma for Sky. You believe that every woman would fall in love with him, but he has just enough of that dangerous and devious side to enhance the character even more. Carlos Lopez is also wonderful as Nathan Detroit, particularly in his scenes with his fiancé Adelaide. Their “Sue Me” in Act Two is hilarious.

The rest of the cast is very good overall, although I found Roland Rusinek’s Nicely-Nicely Johnson to be hit or miss. He has an incredible singing voice but during songs his accent seemed to come and go and seemed a bit forced during the book scenes. I will say that his “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” was excellent. This cast has a winning chemistry, especially during scenes like “Rockin’ the Boat” where their voices soar as one. Another highlight was “The Oldest Established,” which brought beautiful harmonies during the a-ccapella section at the end.

Tech wise, this was one of TUTS’ more successful efforts. There was only one missed mic cue that I heard at my performance, a HUGE improvement over past locally produced shows. The set is perfect and fills the Hobby Center stage well. The “Luck Be a Lady” sequence in the sewers perhaps stood out as my favorite set but they are all well done. This show also had exception lighting, including some lovely moments where a fully lit stage slowly focused in on one or two characters, bringing intimacy to their scenes. The orchestra was also in top form, under the direction of Stephen W. Jones. I did find Julio Agustin’s choreography to be hit or miss, with a lot of step-touch dancing (meaning simple) featured throughout. The Runyonland sequence should set the tone in the opening minutes, but I found it to be a bit bland dancing-wise. “The Crap Shooter’s Dance” in Act Two fares better for the most part but still has parts that seem a bit too amateurish. There were also a couple of moments where lines were mixed up or stumbled on but in each case they recovered nicely (or Nicely-Nicely, if you prefer).

Overall, this is a winning production of a classic and the re-imagining works well enough, although some minor adjustments do need to be made. The creative team could’ve easily wound up with “cider in their ear,” as Sky’s father would say, but they have managed to avoid losing their risky bet.

***1/2 out of *****
“Guys & Dolls”
Music by Frank Loesser
Book by Abe Burrows & Jo Swerling
Lyrics by Frank Loesser
Directed by Nick DeGruccio
Presented by Theatre Under the Stars – The Hobby Center
Now through June 24th
Photo: Carlos Lopez as Nathan Detroit, Omar Lopez-Cepero as Sky Masterson and the company of the Theatre Under the Stars production of “Guys & Dolls” at The Hobby Center

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