Theater Review: WMU's "Guys And Dolls"

Apr 11, 2019

A scene from the Western Michigan University Theatre's production of "Guys and Dolls"
Credit Mark Bugnaski / Western Michigan University

The Western Michigan University Theatre’s production of “Guys and Dolls” brings the characters of Damon Runyon to life in a colorful and endearing production of this classic of American musical theatre. WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review.

A major reason for success in this production is Director Jay Berkow, who endows each scene of “Guys and Dolls” with physical energy, style and purpose.

You can feel the electricity flying from fingertips to racetrack tip sheet as Nicely-Nicely, Benny Southstreet, and Rusty Charlie, played by Ben Marshall, Jack Doherty and Gavin TenBroeke, hawk their bets on a New York street corner in “Fugue for Tinhorns” to give this show instant liftoff. As the trio harmonizes and proclaims that they’ve “got the horse right here”, everyone in the audience of the Shaw Theatre knows they just picked a winning trifecta.

You get the feeling it’s going to be a special kind of evening in the theatre: a winner in every race and a payout in every scene.(P) A few moments later, as the two pairs of lovers hit the stage, you start to believe you’re looking at a dynamo that could light up Broadway. And it does.

When Savannah Fisher’s Sarah Brown sets out from the mission to save souls, she quickly encounters the high and wide-living gambler Sky Masterson, played by Logan Dolence. The sparks fly as each professes “I’ll Know” when their love comes along. It has.

Soprano Fisher initiates this duet with a strong vocal performance. As Dolence responds in kind, you wonder if this couple has real romantic possibilities ahead. They do.

Credit Mark Bugnaski / Western Michigan University

Fisher shows us a surprisingly fiery Sarah. Though she is fervent in her missionary zeal and righteousness in opposing the sin in the streets around the mission, she can be equally fervent in her feelings for Masterson as their relationship develops.

A shining example is her charming drunken dance at Havana’s Café Cubana as she clings to Masterson while he drags her around the dance floor during “If I Were a Bell”. Monique Haley’s clever choreography lifts this scene into flight just before Sky lifts his inebriated partner to pour her onto the midnight flight back to New York.

Haley’s creative hand is also apparent in the movement and dance of the Hot Box Girls and the club’s featured dancer, Miss Adelaide, played by MerryRose Howley. Perky songs like “A Bushel and a Peck” or slinky numbers such as “Take Back Your Mink” echo Adelaide’s emotional roller coaster ride with her would-be groom both on the club stage and off.

Howley’s Adelaide generates both vocal and physical humor as she blames her post-nasal problems on her long engagement to crap game operator Nathan Detroit, played by Ryan Wagner. Despite her sniffles, Howley can belt out a plaintive tune like “Adelaide’s Lament” and hold her own in a give and take number with Nathan such as “Sue Me”.

Wagner, as Nathan, is a master of sweet-talking all comers, including his fiancé, a cop, or Big Julie, a strong-arm thug played with humor and menace by Marcus Jackson. Wagner bends but never breaks while navigating the tough territory of romance and the dangers of a gambling den.

Through choreography and movement, the show’s physical style helps sell this production and pull the audience in. Characters lean sideways and backwards, recoil, undulate, posture, fall on the floor, and recover with the resilience reminiscent of an old “Merry Melodies” cartoon.

The larger-than-life body language of this production is consistently believable, always funny, and never gets in the way of human emotion. In fact, the exaggerated “body English” and gyrations reinforce the premise of the show’s title number: that guys are driven to take extraordinary actions to please “some doll”. And that the “dolls” are doing the driving.

The physicality of “Guys and Dolls” is evident in the pantomimic “Runyonland” scenes that frame the show and set the stage. The company’s multi-talented ensemble executes these fast-paced and perfectly timed panoramas flawlessly to show us the humanity that inhabits bustling Broadway, from the top of society to its seedy underbelly.

Several songs stand out in the frenzy of betting and soul-saving toward the end of Act II. After the vigorous “Crapshooter’s Ballet”, Sky Masterson wagers thousands against the souls of his gambling companions. Here, Logan Dolence delivers a rousing version of “Luck Be a Lady” that leads to a winning roll of the dice and a trip to the Mission for his fellow gamblers. In the midnight prayer meeting that follows, Ben Marshall takes command of the vessel bound for heaven with a superb version of “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat”. He is supported in his efforts by an animated chorus of “sinners” and mission staff as the cast finds something akin to religious fervor and new life in this old favorite.

A concluding number, “Marry the Man Today” is an appealing duet with Sarah and Adelaide that allows both characters a final opportunity to air their doubts about their boyfriends before mustering the resolve to seal the deal. Fisher, as Sarah, vividly displays both extremes of a woman torn between moral duty and matrimony. Howley, as Adelaide, reveals her temptation for alteration of the goods before they are purchased, and then thinks better of it, deciding that like the gamblers on the street she must place her bet with Nathan and live with the consequences.

As seen in this production, the world of Damon Runyon depicts a parade of lovers, players, losers and winners. These memorable Runyonesque characters all seem to have a distinguishing characteristic that is a part of their dialect and manner of speaking. They do not use contractions. What I am saying is that it would not be a bad bet to attend a performance of “Guys and Dolls” before it is too late.

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