They don’t make shows like "Guys and Dolls" anymore. More than 24 hours after walking out of the theater, I still can’t get the tunes out of my head. “Adelaide’s Lament,” Luck Be A Lady,” “If I Were a Bell,” and of course the title song are just four that make "Guys and Dolls" so memorable and so iconic in the American musical theater canon.
Virtually all other musical productions ("West Side Story" and "Fiddler on the Roof" are two rare exceptions) have at least one song that isn’t up to the quality of the rest, but in "Guys and Dolls," every tune is a winner. Some numbers, like “A Bushel and A Peck” and “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” have become such American standards that many people don’t realize they originated with "Guys and Dolls."
"Guys and Dolls" is more than just the music, though. It’s a sweet double love story and a tribute to a simpler time in New York (and America), when the worst crime on the streets was an illegal craps game. On its surface, the story about a group of gamblers and their “dolls” might seem outdated and even a little offensive. Nathan Detroit is looking to rent a place for his floating craps game but doesn’t have the cash for it, so he makes a bet with debonair fellow gambler Sky Masterson that he thinks he can’t lose. Sky must convince the uptight Salvation Army-like Sergeant Sarah Brown to go to Havana with him or he has to pay Nathan $1,000. Meantime, Nathan’s fiancée, Adelaide, suffers from a chronic psychosomatic cold, the result of waiting 14 years for Nathan to marry her.
It’s a mark of how well-written "Guys and Dolls" is that more than 60 years after its Broadway premiere it still feels relevant. Apart from the fact that a “doll” today usually wants more out of life than a wedding ring, the basic male-female interplay at the heart of the show hasn’t changed that much. And the “boys will be boys” subplot of Nathan Detroit’s floating craps game isn’t very far from the male bonding that goes on with today’s “boys’ nights out.”
Composer and lyricist Frank Loesser used stories by writer Damon Runyon as his inspiration and insisted on perfection in every aspect of the original production. In a radical departure from the way musical theater is usually created — book (script) first, then music and lyrics — Loesser wrote the songs and lyrics then looked for a writer to flesh out the story. Loesser wasn’t happy with Jo Swerling’s original book so he hired Abe Burrows to replace him.
Loesser was even tougher on the performers. Isabel Bigley, the original Sarah Brown, claimed that Loesser slapped her when she didn’t sing her songs the way Loesser wanted, and there are stories of other tantrums as well. Although these excesses can’t be excused, the result is the stuff of legends. Besides the film starring Marlon Brando as Sky and Frank Sinatra as Nathan, "Guys and Dolls" has been revived on Broadway and in London many times with stars like Jerry Orbach, Bob Hoskins, Jane Krakowski and Jessica Biel and is a staple of regional productions around the U.S.
With such an illustrious history, it can be daunting for a theater to take on "Guys and Dolls," and not every production is worthy of the tradition. But Fifth Avenue Theatre, with its characteristic polish, does Loesser proud. The voices and acting are first-rate and the overall production design — sets and costumes — dazzling. Director Peter Rothstein has added some stage business to the overtures that open acts 1 and 2, making them appealing to the eye as well as the ear, and the orchestra sound is easily up to Fifth Avenue’s high standards. The only nitpicking I can do is with the orchestrations, which have been jazzed up a little (but not nearly as much as in many other shows), losing some of the melodic beauty of the original songs in the process.
Among the cast, Billie Wildrick is a standout as Adelaide. Not only does she sound remarkably like the original Adelaide, Vivian Blaine; like Blaine she avoids turning Adelaide into a caricature and is able to simultaneously convey the character’s essential humanity as well as her comical qualities. Wildrick’s rendition of “Adelaide’s Lament” (“a girl could develop a cold”) is alone worth the price of admission. Katherine Strohmaier and Brandon O’Neill have voices that blend seamlessly together in their two main numbers, “I’ll Know” and “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” and Daniel C. Levine’s Nathan is a lovable cad who in the end does make an honest woman out of Adelaide.
If you go: "Guys and Dolls," through June 5 at Fifth Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave. Tickets start at $28 and are available at the box office, by phone (206-625-1900 or 888-5TH-4TIX), or online.