In these days of tight budgets and straitened circumstances, theater artists coast to coast are scaling back reliable warhorses. The hope is always to find something new and true in well-worn material, even while trying to put it over affordably. Mary Zimmerman’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival revival of “Guys and Dolls,” imported to Beverly Hills’ Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts for three weeks, has its execution problems, but provides enjoyable clues as to how to make the familiar seem fresh.
No case need be made for the 1950 Damon Runyon adaptation, considered by many the best musical of all time. The wisecracks and situations in Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling’s libretto still land, and Frank Loesser’s songs remain a marvel of wit and artistry. Productions much less glittering than Jerry Zaks’ famous 1992 Broadway revival leave audiences humming and smiling. The show’s that good.
Yet Zimmerman, as skillful a storyteller as she is renowned as a visual stylist, thinks there’s more gold to be mined from the tale of inveterate gamblers and long-suffering molls. For starters, setting it in Runyon’s ’30s milieu brings Depression-era desperation to the hopes of making a killing in a crap game. (It’s also a nice bit of economy, allowing costume designer Mara Blumenfeld to substitute plain suits for the show’s traditional gaudy candy colors.)
The stage is largely bare but for a multiuse table and a moveable storefront. (Designer Daniel Ostling communicates the side trip to Havana with a stage full of beach balls, not the happiest of choices.) The director clearly wants us to hear Runyon’s distinctively elevated Gotham patois with new ears, and in the context of real characters’ real problems. So she sets them starkly against the blue-green backdrop, and lets ’em rip.
“Pleasant as a doll’s company may be, she must always take second place to aces back to back.” That’s silky Sky Masterson (Jeremy Peter Johnson) talking, and Zimmerman’s approach pays off best in his opposites-attract dance with mission tambourine-slinger Sarah Brown (Kate Hurster). For once they meet truthfully instead of cute, and their mutual desire for romance with an “other” is poignantly detailed. The lyrics to “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” carry unanticipated ache and joy in this rendition.
On the other hand, Nathan Detroit (Rodney Gardiner) is portrayed as terrified of everything — the cops, other hoods and fiancee Adelaide (Robin Goodrin Nordli) — in an evident attempt to bring out his deep-seated unsuitedness to grifterhood, which he’s destined to abandon by the finale. But if a part of him doesn’t revel in the gambling life, why is he fighting to maintain it? The character makes no sense in this nervous-Nellie interpretation, which could be why his scenes and songs with Adelaide, usually comic gold, fall so flat.
Other ensemble members substitute odd walks and choked voices for comedy styling. Doug Peck’s bare-bones orchestrations sound like half a dozen players failed to show, though choreographer Daniel Pelzig gets great mileage out of his dancers’ athleticism and brio.
The strangest element is three tiny models of the New York skyline that, placed together, stand in a cube about three feet on each side. The scale makes it seem as if the play is being enacted in Brooklyn, but this artifact (which resembles the Kremlin more than Gotham) gets reverently toted around like a religious icon, as if each new placement made a difference. Zimmerman’s gamble comes up snake eyes here. As Runyon might have noted, sometimes visual shorthand may yield a losing hand.