The opening image in Des McAnuff’s strangulated revival of “Guys and Dolls” is of Damon Runyon pounding his typewriter, framing the production unequivocally in a fictional world. But the unintended effect has been to process the author’s richly slangy, flavorful valentine to a vanished New York demimonde of hustlers, gamblers, floozies and gangsters into a cartoon of manufactured colors. Fronted by four likable leads whose collective charisma never rises above medium wattage, the production sucks the personality out of an American musical-theater classic. The consolation is that even in this misconceived presentation, the show itself is too good not to be at least minimally entertaining.
The problem with that fallback is that most regular theatergoers still have vivid memories of superior productions: Jerry Zaks’ smash 1992 Broadway revival with Nathan Lane and Faith Prince as eternally engaged Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide; Richard Eyre’s long-running 1982 National Theater staging, with Bob Hoskins and Julia McKenzie; Michael Grandage’s 2005 West End run, starring Ewan McGregor and Jane Krakowski. Plans to bring the latter production to Broadway fell apart, opening the door to McAnuff’s unrelated rethink.
Even on its own terms, something is wrong here. The production is both gaudy and anemic, overdesigned and underdirected. This musical should delight on the strengths of Frank Loesser’s sparkling score, blessed with some of the cleverest, quippiest lyrics in musical history. Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling’s book is no less an asset, lovingly evoking the seedy glamour of Times Square decades before it became a commercialized tourist mecca, while expertly balancing the stories of four lead characters with conflicting missions. Yet somehow, despite dynamite material and talented performers, the production rarely fires on all cylinders.
A central obstacle is the design concept. As he showed in “Jersey Boys” and “The Farnsworth Invention,” McAnuff loves his scaffolding. Working with designer Robert Brill, he has crowded the Nederlander stage with signage, structural beams and other setpieces that do battle with Dustin O’Neill’s busy blur of projections, depicting random cityscape elements and location details. But this combo of digital and traditional sets has been integrated more seamlessly and with greater precision even in “The Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular.”
The fussy video input constantly pulls focus, overwhelming the actors and snuffing out both the human drama and the comedy. It’s a nocturnal playground that’s all technology, no magic.
Paul Tazewell’s costumes are similarly overworked, particularly the riot of pinstripes and plaids on the men. It’s hard for anyone to etch a character while shouting to be heard over their outfit, and it’s to the credit of supporting players like Steve Rosen, Jim Walton and Glenn Fleshler that they capture some of the required gritty, Runyonesque color. But the four principal characters never quite become three-dimensional.
There’s plenty going on in Burrows and Swerling’s story. Suave gambler Sky Masterson (Craig Bierko) bets he can seduce straitlaced Salvation Army zealot Sarah Brown (Kate Jennings Grant), whisking her off by plane to dinner in Cuba. Sarah is struggling to usher enough sinners across the threshold to keep the Save-a-Soul Mission open. Those sinners are too busy planning for a floating crap game for which amiable shyster Nathan Detroit (Oliver Platt) is desperately seeking a safe location. Meanwhile, Nathan’s fiancee of 14 years, burlesque headliner Adelaide (Lauren Graham), has a permanent psychosomatic cold due to the absence of a ring on her finger.
While nobody is exactly digging deep to erase the memory of past interpreters, the dolls make more of an impression than the guys. Grant has an appealing prim determination, her willowy body dissolving into gangly disorder after drinking one dulce de leche too many in Havana. And while she’s stuck in a performance built around a trashy Rhode Island accent, Graham, late of “Gilmore Girls,” puts her own daffy comic spin on her line readings. Her numbers are fun, if not the uproarious treats they can be with a truly outstanding Adelaide. But she finds the sweetness and poignancy in this sad romantic stalwart with her cherished fantasy of domestic bliss, always willing to give her commitment-phobic man one more chance.
Platt is a natural deadpan funnyman, but his constipated scowl becomes a little one-note, and Bierko’s singing is more confident than the bland stamp he otherwise puts on the show’s conventional leading-man role. While the other principals have solid rather than stellar vocal chops, the singing is polished throughout; music director Ted Sperling has done a fine job on vocal arrangements, particularly some barbershop harmonizing for the men.
It’s significant that none of the four leads shows any particular grace or ease when moving to music. However, with help from choreographer Sergio Trujillo, McAnuff brings more life to the dance numbers than the sleepy book scenes. The “Havana” interlude has plenty of Latin sizzle, while below ground in a New York sewer, “The Crapshooter’s Dance” brings a touch of the tense, masculine energy of vintage Jerome Robbins.
The designated showstopper in any “Guys and Dolls” production is Nicely-Nicely Johnson’s faux-revival meeting number “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” usually performed by a roly-poly actor in the Stubby Kaye mode, suddenly overcome with religious spirit. The choice of thesp Tituss Burgess, adopting another accent of weirdly indeterminate ethnicity after “The Little Mermaid,” for this number is a departure from that tradition, but his high-energy performance certainly whips up the crowd. As the bossy Salvation Army general, Mary Testa layers on some scene-stealing touches, all but chewing the projections.
It’s hard to know McAnuff’s motivation for shifting the setting from its original time, circa 1950, to the 1930s, when Runyon was writing. In any case, the move adds nothing; nor does the inclusion of the author onstage. There’s an overriding flatness to what should be a sensational high-roller affair, sparking to life occasionally only to sag again under the strain. And for all the attention to Manhattan skyscrapers, subway trains, diners, tenements, underground lairs and alleyways, a sense of place is absent from this take on a quintessential New York story.