Friday, November 9, 2012

High and holy rollers at the North Shore

Kelly McCormick expects the denizens of Runyonland to "Follow the Fold." Photos by Paul Lyden. 
By now there's little doubt that Frank Loesser's Guys and Dolls is one of the signature achievements of Western civilization - after, I suppose, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and maybe King Lear.  In fact I may have never met anyone who didn't enjoy, or at least appreciate, this sublimely sardonic valentine to the milieu of Damon Runyon, who  during Prohibition (and after) famously chronicled New York's demi-monde of Jewish gangsters (Runyon himself was pals with the Dutch Schultz gang).

Runyon is one of those writers whose style has been accorded its own moniker - "Runyonese" - and even if you haven't read him, you'll recognize it immediately, so deeply has its lingo influenced the culture. In Runyonese, everyone speaks in the present tense, and the characters, known by such nicknames as "Liver-Lips Louie" or "The Seldom Seen Kid," converse in a robust patois that mixes pungent slang with naïvely elaborate construction, as in "I would respectfully suggest that this ever-lovin' broad find herself another world in which to live!"

Loesser hangs onto the Runyon vibe with perfect pitch in his  lyrics, and is essentially responsible for the book, too (it was basically built around his songs), which bemusedly matches irony for irony in its tale of Sarah Brown, the holy roller out to save the soul of high roller Sky Masterson.  Loesser's own additions to Runyonese are deliciously ingenious, too (he actually works "streptococci" into a lyric), and of course, as always, everything is set to unforgettable hooks.  In short, Guys and Dolls is unadulterated pleasure, certainly one of the best musicals ever written.

So why does the solid, but not quite inspired, North Shore production take so long to kick up its heels and shake a tail feather? I'm not quite sure.  It does get somewhere, but only well after we think it should have.  Part of the problem is that lead Sky Masterson is miscast; another is that second leads Miss Adelaide (Mylinda Hull) and Nathan Detroit (Jonathan Hammond), though individually strong, share little chemistry; finally, for once the great Michael Lichtefeld's choreography feels thin - at least until the showstoppers kick in.

Wayne W. Pretlow and Ben Roseberry in full  gangsta regalia.  
Or perhaps, for whatever reason, director Mark Martino simply was unable to pull his strong team of individual performers into a really tight ensemble.  Even so, Loesser's magic takes over much of the time; there are wonderful renditions here of "Miss Adelaide's Lament," from Mylinda Hull,  and "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" from Wayne W. Pretlow - and Kevin Vortmann, though too callow to convince as Sky, does warm up to bring off a lovely "I've Never Been in Love Before" with sweet, spunky Kelly McCormick, and then scores with a high-energy "Luck Be a Lady Tonight."

And the second act generally cooks with more heat than the first, with "Sit Down" truly rocking not just the boat but the house, as choreographer Lichtefeld hits a hotter groove both here and in "The Crap Game Dance." The finale is likewise a sweet hoot (the gangsters improbably bend to their women's will, of course), and the crowd leaves the house with a smile.  This version hardly hits Cloud 9, I'd say, but it still leaves you plenty high.

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