Milwaukee Rep’s ‘Guys and Dolls’ is a showstopper from beginning to end
Milwaukee Rep artistic director Mark Clements has hit the jackpot with his rousing, colorful and finely tuned season opener Guys and Dolls. Don’t gamble on missing this surefire hit — get your tickets now because they’re certain to go fast.
Why so certain? First of all, there’s the music. Frank Loesser’s score is among the most tuneful and popular in the American musical canon. The hits just keep coming, from the exuberant “If I Were a Bell” to the plaintive “I’ll Know (When My Love Comes Along)” and from the gospel-infused “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat” to the dramatic “Luck Be a Lady,” which Frank Sinatra made into a chart topper.
Arrive at the theater prepared to clap your hands and tap your feet — when you’re not standing on them, that is, to deliver an ovation.
The book, by Abe Burrows and Joe Swerling, is faithful to the short stories by journalist Damon Runyon that inspired it. The quirky characters and dialogue throb with the authenticity of the newspaperman, who walked the nighttime streets of post-Prohibition Manhattan with a pencil and reporter’s pad.
The play’s simple, classic-comedic plot follows two seemingly mismatched couples as they navigate their way toward togetherness amid the underground crapshoots and burlesque parlors of New York’s seedier side. The characters seem of interest only to the Christian missionaries hell-bent on saving them — and the police determined to lock them up.
The plot is set in motion by gambling impresario Nathan Detroit (a likeable Richard R. Henry), operator of “the oldest established, permanent-floating crap game in New York.” The heat is on Nathan, both from Lt. Brannigan (a menacing Matt Daniels) and Miss Adelaide (Kelley Faulkner), his long-intended bride.
A burlesque dancer at the Hot Box club, Adelaide has been waiting 14 years for Detroit to lead her down the aisle to a happily-ever-after life with six kids and a green picket fence. Now she’s ready to walk on Nathan if he doesn’t give up the dice and show her the ice (that’s 1950s-speak for “put a ring on it”).
The wait has had a devastating effect on her upper respiratory system — as we learn in the wonderfully witty number “Adelaide’s Lament.” Faulkner milks this sidesplittingly funny musical monologue for all it’s worth, setting a new bar of cleverness for future Adelaides.
Adelaide’s counterpart is the evangelical crusader Sarah Brown (a wren-like Emma Rose Brooks who’s itching to take flight). She’s tasked with some of the score’s most demanding vocals, and she delivers — with a stunning range that darts from her crystal coloratura presentation of “I’ll Know” to the down-to-earth giddiness of “If I Were a Bell.”
Brown’s romantic mismatch is the hardened heartthrob Sky Masterson (Nicholas Rodriguez), a dapper peacock who can have any “dame” and chooses “nun” (technically, she’s a missionary).
Rodriguez is a powerhouse performer who arrives at The Rep with a robust résumé of high-profile roles and a tenor so rich and strong it can raise goosebumps. His performance is magnetic and soulful. We watch his heart melt, and we believe it.
Another talent worthy of mention is Michael J. Farina (as Nicely-Nicely Johnson), an actor, singer and dancer of impeccable talent who uses his wellhoned technique to outshine ensemble members who are younger and suppler.
That’s quite a compliment, because the ensemble’s members are near perfection. In addition to proving excellent individually in their song-and-dance numbers, they work together under the precise musical direction of Dan Kazemi and choreographer Stephen Mear.
They also present some magical moments of vocal harmony.
Mear puts the cast through some of the showiest footwork you’re likely to see on a Milwaukee stage. To the credit of Clements and Mear, the song and dance numbers transition organically from the dialogue and plot.
The balletic staging of “Luck Be a Lady,” the rousing chorus and character flourishes of “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat,” and the extravagant storytelling and breathtaking moves of “Havana” are highlights. But equally effective are the quiet, heartfelt revelations of “I’ll Know” and “More I Cannot Wish You,” the latter delivered with grandfatherly tenderness and conviction by David Hess as Arvide Abernathy.
Kelley Faulkner, center, shows off an impressive flair with comedy in the Rep’s current production of