LAUREN GRAHAM, THE BEATING HEART OF A DELIGHTFUL ‘GUYS AND DOLLS,’ DRESSED BY PAUL TAZEWELL
Don’t let the bad reviews scare you off attending the revival of GUYS AND DOLLS at the Nederlander Theatre. The night I saw it on March 8, both cast and audience were having the time of their lives, Ben Brantley of the Times, be damned! His review was just the latest in my on-going query with him, i.e., Did we see the same show? Brantley went on and on about Director Des McAnuff’s supposedly wrongheaded new take on the material. (This show is such a sacred cow to proprietary musical comedy queens of all sexes and ages, perhaps stemming from high school productions they all took part in – like THE PAJAMA GAME – although a show about gambling, drunkenness and strippers would seem kinda questionable kid’s stuff.) Who knows? Maybe his direction was that bad and maybe when the lousy notices came out everyone decided to chuck any overtly conceptual “improvements” and just do a fun show. Or maybe not.
ROBERT BRILL’S SET
To speak in Runyonesque parlance, all’s I know is the stage was flooded with sheer delight. Let’s get the weaknesses out of the way, namely Oliver Platt, who seems to have unappealingly turned into Edward G. Robinson, physically, and played Nathan Detroit like a weak cross between a Dead End Kid and John Lovitz, with his shifty, plaintive whine. Titus Burgess’ Nicely-Nicely also wasn’t exactly my cuppa: a bit too fey and Caribbean-flavored, with a vocal timbre more given to Mariah Carey meslismatics than true Broadway belt. As Sarah Brown, Kate Jennings, with certain pitch problems, took some warming up-to, but, soon, her energetic spirit and horsey genuineness in the role got to me and, let’s face it, despite Sarah’s songs, it’s not such a great one to begin with: yet another cliched Broadway virgin who gets warmed up, all upright, uptight frost and then drunken uninhibitedness.
KATE JENNINGS GRANT AND CRAIG BIERKO
THE REAL CRAIG – OR MME. TUSSAUD’S? OR IS IT BRIAN D’ARCY JAMES?
Craig Bierko made Sky Masterson more appropriately romantic than any I’ve ever seen, with his ardent baritone especially effective on the tune, “I’ll Know.” (But what’s up with the strange publicity photographs of this handsome actor in the ad campaigns, very unrecognizably Mme. Tussaud’s?) Of the four leads, however, Lauren Graham’s profoundly lovable Miss Adelaide is the stand-out and the beating heart of this production. Some have definitely taken issue with her eccentric, halting line delivery, but I found it quite witty and revealing of new nuances in the dialogue. It’s directly the opposite approach from Faith Prince’s now-legendary perfect cartoon approach – imitated by a subsequent generation or two of musical actresses; there’s one in every show quacking and squeaking her Noo Yawk lines out – and I found it perfectly valid and deliciously fresh. It’s as if a lifetime spent stripping, dancing and singing in dingy burlesque houses (before McAnuff’s savvy row of horny, fedora’ed patrons), in addition to Nathan Detroit’s exasperating evasiveness have left her shell-shocked, like someone dropped on their head a few dozen times. Graham’s performance kept reminding me of both Jean Arthur and Judy Holliday, not for any histrionic similarities, necessarily, but more for its pure originality, the way she ferreted out a delicate vulnerability beneath all that brass. “Adelaide’s Lament,” in her hands, was no longer a hackneyed show-stopper – face it: don’t you heave a sigh of resignation whenever it’s hauled out as a showcase number – took on a wholly unexpected fresh vitality, making you realize, once again, the utter brilliance of Frank Loesser’s pen.
STEVE ROSEN AT THE OPENING (Photo by Joe Corrigan)
My other favorite actor of the evening was adorable, bespectacled Steve Rosen who was unadulteratedly Runyonesque and quite heavenly as Benny Southstreet, like a sexy Arnold Stang, lending an authenticity and spunky performance grace which illuminated the stage with his every appearance. Mary Testa was another welcome presence as General Cartwright, with her climactic caterwauling and carrying-on taking the already delirious “Sit Down Your Rocking the Boat” number to further heights of fun. Spanking herself and shrieking “Bad girl!” may be a tad excessive, not to mention anachronistic given the ’30s setting, but who cares? A wild combination of Margaret Hamilton and Constance Collier here, you just want Testa to go over the top, and, happily, she does not disappoint.
Sergio Trujillo’s choreography was both snappy and very sexy, especially in the Hot Box burlesque scenes and the really sizzling Havana nightclub sequence. Robert Brill’s sets were serviceable (although I wish, if a decision to use rear projected films is made, the images would at least be kept in focus, instead of the distracting, unattractive fuzziness meant, one supposes, to suggest perspective). Paul Tazewell’s costumes for the women were some of the best I’ve seen on Broadway, beautifully detailed with an original, rich color palette, some of them looking cadged from John Galliano (the absolute best person to cadge from when you’re talking ’30s-inspired). His male outfits were drabber, and less strong, not a patch on the psychedilically-hued pinstripe bespoke of William Ivey Long (whose men’s suits are always his strong point) of the 1992 revival of GUYS AND DOLLS.
A GALLIANO GOWN
And, speaking of that all-hallowed production, I confess to being somewhat more entertained by this newer one, sacrilege though that may be. Admittedly, Prince was brilliant, Christopher Chadman’s choreography truly popped, Jerry Zaks’ very traditional direction had fizz – maybe the last time he exhibited such – and Tony Walton’s set design was scrumptious. But Peter Gallagher was, as always, somewhat of a waxen, bland mannequin as Sky, Jose de Guzman was an indifferent Sarah and Nathan Lane, well…that depends on how much you enjoy this performer, who’s always rather manically the same to me, a little over-convinced of his own devastating entertainment value. He was, indeed, at his best in this and THE PRODUCERS -who knew back in 1992 that we would see these performances many more times, in various other productions?
Just go and enjoy, because you certainly will. It’s nothing like that recent, open-casket Roundabout production of PAL JOEY (although Martha Plimpton was sensational and lead Matthew Risch got a definitely bad critical rap – the kid got the job done and was young and sexy, f’Chrissakes!) Everyone from bus-ferried tourists to fashion designer Zak Posen, who sat in front of me, had endorphins shooting out of their skulls, and both intermission and exits were positively ecstatic. If new audiences manage to discover the show and remove the producers’ worries about the reviews’ impact on box office, I venture to say, that in a decade or so, they’ll be looking back fondly at it, maybe even calling it “legendary,” as well.
VIVIAN BLAINE, THE ORIGINAL MISS ADELAIDE, DRESSED BY ALVIN COLT, 1950