Frank Loesser’s Music Highlights Gritty N.Y. Riffs
by Lynne Stevens
Broadway is the embodiment of the melting pot. Damon Runyon’s gritty 30s New York stories reveled in its variety. Broadway welcomed Italian, Irish, and Jewish immigrants—the road to prosperity for many went through Times Square.
Director Bill English’s cast for “Guys and Dolls: A Musical Fable of Broadway” displays that variety—and they are Fabulous! And can they dance! All body-types jeté across the stage with sheer joy—dancing to lyrics that are funny and smart.
“Guys and Dolls” combines polite speech with modern slang. While the title would elicit a “huh?” from today’s teens, slang still works. But no feminist would accept being called someone’s “doll” today. Frank Loesser’s 50s musical is based in the 30s Depression—but some gambling men are wonderfully played by women now.
Listening to the long overture, I realized I’ve heard these melodies before. I just never knew where they came from. As the charming pantomime introduces us to New York street life, English evokes the cacophony of the city, swelling from both action and music.
During the Great Depression, enthusiastic Christian evangelists preach “good” versus “evil.” Even though gambling is illegal, policemen turn a blind eye. But snappy Nathan Detroit (versatile Joel Roster) still fears for his floating crap game.
Detroit’s sidekick Benny Southstreet (terrific Chachi Delgado) dances spectacularly, with expressions that keep us glued to the action. Choreographer Nicole Helfer brilliantly unites scenes with movement. The crap game in the sewer is particularly spectacular!
Scenic Designer Heather Kenyon has painted a dark, dirty cityscape stretching to the rafters with folding panels revealing back alleys and neighborhood bakeries. The turntable stage takes us to Havana, then New York, and back to the Christian mission hal—with the flick of a switch.
Costume Designer Kathleen Qiu creates three distinct wardrobes: smart suits and hats for the gamblers; clinging dresses for the Hot Box Girls; and the trim red uniforms for the Save-a-Soul Mission “ladies.”
The heart of Loesser’s musical is the overlapping stories of a pair of couples who find love despite their warring values. Even big shot gamblers and their “dolls” can’t help whom they fall in love with.
Gambler Sky Masterson (smooth David Toshiro Crane) woos idealistic missionary Sergeant Sarah Brown (delightful Abigail Esfira Campbell) of the Save-a-Soul mission house. To win Sarah over, Sky has promised to deliver twelve sinners to a Mission meeting.
On a bet with Nathan, Sky takes Sarah to Havana for more joyous dancing. Straight-laced Sarah, with the aid of a rum drink, shows her wild side. Roster’s Nathan Detroit, a tough guy gambler, is determined to resist Hot Box dancer Adelaide (dazzling Melissa Wolfklain). They play off one another with superb comic timing.
We’re treated to a titillating burlesque number when Adelaide and her back up dancers perform “Take Back Your Mink.” Finally, costly gifts lie in a heap on the floor:
Take back your mink
Take back your pearls
What made you think
That I was one of those girls?
So many memorable songs resonate: “Luck Be a Lady,” “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” and the very beautiful “My Time of Day.” “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” soars in a beautiful medley by Sky and Sarah.
We left S.F. Playhouse humming. I would love to see it all over again.
“Guys and Dolls: A Musical Fable of Broadway” –based on story & characters by Damon Runyon, book by Jo Swerling & Abe Burrows, music & lyrics by Frank Loesser, directed by Bill English, music direction by Dave Dobrusky, choreography by Nicole Helfer, scenic design by Heather Kenyon, at San Francisco Playhouse, San Francisco. Info: sfplayhouse.org – to January 13, 2024.
Cast: Malia Abayon, Abigail Esfira Campbell, Jessica Coker, David Toshiro Crane, Jurä Davis, Chachi Delgado, Alison Ewing, Alex Hsu, Kay Loren, Brigitte Losey, Miles Meckling, Joel Roster, Jill Slyter, and Melissa Wolfklain.
Musicians: Dave Dobrusky, conductor/keyboard; Nick Di Scala & Audrey Jackson, reed 1; Will Berg & Hal Richards, reed 2; Jason Park & Justin J. Smith, trumpet; Derek James, trombone; Kirk Duplantis & Ben Visini, drums.
Banner photo: Kay Loren (repentant Nicely-Nicely) describes a heavenly journey. Photos by Jessica Palopoli