Much of the Old Globe’s “Robin and the 7 Hoods,” an adaptation of a clumsy 1964 movie musical, plays like a big fat hit. That hit is “Guys and Dolls,” whose characters and tone are shamelessly mimicked — until one particular Casey Nicholaw staging of a Sammy Cahn/Jimmy Van Heusen song starts to lend the tuner a distinctive glow, prominently visible thereafter.
Retained from the glum pic, which presented the Rat Pack at its most listless, are the title and premise of a latter-day Chicago scoundrel enriching the poor at fatcats’ expense. The period has been pushed from Prohibition to 1962 in homage to “Mad Men,” though that cynical smash’s influence is less evident in ironic social satire than in designer Gregg Barnes’ tie and lapel widths. (Robert Brill’s grim set does evoke a Windy City skyscraper, but echoes of prison and conformity keep dampening the sense of tuner fun.)
The “Guys and Dolls” parallels are inescapable. After a “Runyonland”-like prelude set to the pic’s hit “My Kind of Town,” the “Robin” plot doles out a romance between a smoothie hood and an uptight reformer, kicked off by a wager; a raffish, henpecked lowlife resisting marriage to a nitery chantoosie; and a hard-boiled dick eyeballing mugs and molls running riot. And flying the comic couple, rather than the main lovers, off to a Latin American rendezvous doesn’t qualify as a blow for originality.
Yet all the familiarity — and pro forma squabbles of cafe owner Robbo (Eric Schneider, tinnily echoing Sinatra) and sworn enemy P.J. Sullivan (Rick Holmes) — suddenly melt away when Robbo leads crusading telejournalist Marian (Kelly Sullivan) to the floor, each claiming “I Like to Lead When I Dance.” Their turn becomes a three-act play with dozens of ploys to take command, like the compelling narratives always told by Fred and Ginger between the lines of a Continental or Carioca.
Thereafter the plot sputters through a wan “Ocean’s 11” gambit as the gang rips Sullivan off, and the gags are groaners. (A flirting Marian, rebuffed, explains “It was an ice-breaker. But then so was the Titanic.”) Both Kelly Sullivan and soubrette Amy Spanger apply relentless energy to roles lacking logic and consistency.
But the insouciant Van Heusen melodies and wicked Cahn wit lift the spirits as Nicholaw’s dances reveal character and texture. This is a composer/lyricist catalog put to its canniest use and arranged by John McDaniel, Bill Elliott and David Chase with Nelson Riddle surely smiling down from jazz heaven.
Showstoppers emerge from unlikely sources. Gallant Jeffrey Schechter leads the grateful recipients of Robbo’s largesse in a thrilling tap number to “Walkin’ Happy,” hearkening back to Gower Champion’s heyday.
“Come Blow Your Horn” has consigliere Little John (Will Chase) boosting the gang’s morale in a burst of athleticism rivaling Bernstein’s “Cool” for cool.
As far as development goes, fresher choices already lurk at the fringes. With Chase delightfully channeling Dean Martin in “You Can’t Love ‘Em All,” surely Dino’s carelessly boozy egotism would serve as a better obstacle to his fiancee’s tender trap than John’s current, lame “fear of commitment.”
Similarly, Schneider occasionally drops his plastic ring-a-ding-ding veneer to reveal ambivalence about Robbo’s shady past; his morality, only vaguely dealt with, is supposedly central to his dilemma. If we genuinely cared about his redemption, we could be made to cheer, from Adam Heller’s Lt. Brannigan bolstering our hero (a terrific use of “High Hopes”) right up to the trickily scripted finale.
Still, the 7 Dwarfs were nothing without a terrifying Wicked Witch, and “7 Hoods” won’t hit its stride until there’s menace at its core.
Despite, or maybe because of, what must be a world record for quips about violent death, we’re never fearful of the consequences for kidnapped Marian or John, let alone for Chicago, should the bland, buffoonish P.J. reign triumphant. And with no fear, there’s no emotional connection and no show. (The team might take another look at Peter Falk’s over-the-top monster mobster, the ’64 pic’s most watchable element.)
Even if the “Guys and Dolls” specter doesn’t recede, the writing and playing must go “all the way” to offer a hero to rally around and a villain to revile. Until then, “Robin and the 7 Hoods” will flash its grin and divert its audience for a while without truly hittin’ ’em where they live.