There is something wonderfully poetic about the writing of newsman Damon Runyon, who, during the first half of the 20th century, wrote sentimentally about the gamblers and other lowlifes he encountered in New York City. The dialogue with which his characters spoke was a combination of low slang and attempts at sophisticated speech that came out in a manner which has been enshrined in our language as "Runyonesque". So it seemed only natural that his work would eventually be translated to the musical theater. And it was a natural fit when, in 1950, it became immortalized in the musical, Guys & Dolls. The play is absolutely wonderful material, which, in the right hands, can soar, and, even in the wrong hands, still stands out on its own. And we are lucky that the Bergen County Players and director Dottie Fischer are the right hands; Damon Runyon's spirit is smiling on this production.
Guys & Dolls, like many musicals, involves two romances, one more serious, and one more comic. The main plot involves game runner and con artist Nathan Detroit, who, with a lot of high rollers in town, is trying to set up a dice game in spite of police interference, so that he can make a big score. The problem is that the only spot available requires a $1,000 deposit, a sum Nathan does not have. Enter gambler Sky Masterson, well known for betting large amounts of money on unusual things. When a discussion moves towards Sky's skill with women, he bets Nathan that he can convince any woman of Nathan's choice to go to Havana with him for dinner the following evening. Nathan sees a sure thing in choosing Sarah Brown, a lovely but rigid missionary from a Salvation Army-like group. And from there, the rest of the plot flows, as Sky's attempts to seduce Sarah ends up working in reverse, with him realizing that he's falling in love with her. Further complicating matters (and the plot) is Nathan's 14-year engagement to Miss Adelaide, a featured performer at the burlesque Hot Box club, finally getting tired of the long wait.
Combine this with a score by Frank Loesser with multiple styles and complex counter-melodies, and you very close to an archetype of what a musical comedy should be.
For the four leads, the Bergen County Players found great talents. Not that there was much problem casting the role of Nathan Detroit; Steve Bell, who frequently acts as musical director for the BCP, makes an infrequent acting appearance as a man trying to make an honest, albeit illegal, buck amid interference coming in from many different directions. Bell proves that he has every bit as much talent on the stage as he does behind it, portraying with equal aplomb both the comedy and the pathos of the character. Janet Gaynor-Matonti stars as his long-suffering fiance, Miss Adelaide, a burlesque headliner of a lower middle class background, little formal education, and a strong Brooklyn accent, but with an intelligence that belies that background, and a yearning to be something more, even if it's becoming a middle class suburban homemaker. Playing the simultaneously slick and suave Sky Masterson is Jody Laufer, in his BCP debut, who lets us see his facade slowly breaking down as he gets to know Sarah. Speaking of whom, Sarah is played by vocalist Chloe Nevill, also making her BCP debut. Her character goes through the most changes in the play, and Chloe makes them all not only believable, but natural to the audience. Let's hope that these are the first of many more performances we'll see from the two of them.
The entire cast is well up to the complex and layered score. Musical Director Jalmari Vanamo should be congratulated that there was not an off-note in the entire play (3 hours, including an intermission and a 5 minute overture), with the various singers weaving through the melodies so that the foreground part of the song is, with seeming effortlessness, handed from one singer to the other and back. And, for those who have only seen the 1955 movie version, the play contains several songs that were cut from the movie, all of them making one wonder why they were cut. The choreography, as is usual with the BCP, takes full advantage of the stage at the Little Firehouse Theater. Particularly impressive is the opening "Runyonland" sequence, the Havana scene, the pseudo-burlesque numbers at the Hot Box, and the 11:00 number (well, 10:30 in this case), "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat".
While all the secondary characters are well-portrayed, a few of the performances are worth noting. The versatile Bill Cantor, playing Arvide Abernathy, an elderly missionary who is more worldly wise than he appears, gives a solidly convincing performance. In the more subtle department, the audience seemed to laugh just a little bit harder every time Jim Kelly, playing "Liver Lips Louie" and others, came on to the stage. Newcomer Frank Favata's Harry the Horse seemed to have walked right out of the pages of a Damon Runyon story. In a non-singing role, Mark Hermann made Lt. Brannigan a constant presence, even when the character was not on stage. The featured role of Nicely-Nicely Johnson, the more buffoonish of Nathan Detroit's assistants, is played as slightly less overtly clownish than is traditional in an interesting take by Brian Eller. And the singing and dancing by the Hot Box Dolls, played by Emily Cooper, Honor Friberg, Rosella DeVincenzo, Lauren Salaterski, Elisabeth Erdmann and Debbie Zika is spot on.
In the more technical areas, the relatively minimalist sets with Steve Moldt providing the set design and construction and Marci K. Weinstein providing the decor, allow for rapid changes between the many scenes while invoking the look and feel from Times Square to a squalid mission to the nightlife in Havana, Cuba. They continue to apply the "used universe" look, making the rundown parts look truly run down, while keeping the bright and new spots looking new. They were aided by the lighting provided by lighting designer Allen Seward; overheard were a number of audience members discussing during the intermission how effective it was. The costumes, especially with the need for rapid changes from one scene to the next, were ably designed and put together by Lynne Lupfer and Michele Roth.
It is a wonderful evening of musical theater. The Bergen County Players have another hit on their hands!
- All performances for Guys and Dolls take place at The Little Firehouse Theatre at 298 Kinderkamack Road in Oradell, home to the Bergen County Players since 1949. Performance times are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm.
- Tickets for Guys and Dolls are $24 for all performances and can be purchased online at www.bcplayers.org, by calling 201-261-4200 or by visiting the box office at 298 Kinderkamack Road in Oradell during regular box office hours. Visa, Master Card, and American Express are accepted.
- As it has for the past few seasons, BCP continues to offer a "Questions & Artists" (Q&A) discussion following select performances. Guys and Dolls Q&A will take place immediately following the September 18, 2015 performance. Admission is included in the cost of the ticket.
- Advance discount tickets for students age 25 and under with proper ID are available for $14 by phone or walk-up only, pending seat availability.
- Parking is free at the Park Avenue municipal lot, across the street, one-half block north of the theatre.