Oregon Shakes’ Guys and Dolls Heads to the Wallis

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[dropcap]Frank Loesser’s[/dropcap] classic musical Guys and Dolls is making its way to the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts for the holidays. The production is directed by Mary Zimmerman and was originally produced at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) in Ashland, Oregon. Like the OSF production of Into the Woods, which played a sold-out run at the Wallis last season, Guys and Dolls transfers to Los Angeles with its original Ashland cast intact, for a limited run.

Guys and Dolls is an iconic musical from the Golden Age of Broadway. Numerous critics and Broadway pundits have ranked the show, with its tale of gamblers, soul-savers, and chorus girls, as Broadway’s greatest musical. Certainly the superlative score, brilliant book and unique vision of a long-departed Times Square are inimitable.

Mary Zimmerman, who gained her reputation with a stunning series of literary adaptations, including the Tony-winning Metamorphoses, may not be the first name to come to mind as a director for Loesser’s oft-produced masterpiece, but that’s because the popularity of the show has overshadowed the source: stories by Damon Runyon.

Like Pal Joey before it, and Fiddler on the Roof which followed, Guys and Dolls is based on a series of stories that Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling arduously crafted into a cohesive narrative without losing Runyon’s distinctive comic sensibility or the extraordinary patois he invented for his gamblers and the other denizens of his Manhattan demimonde.

Burrows and Swerling’s ingenious and witty script focuses on Nathan Detroit’s desperate attempts to raise $1,000 in order for him to rent a space to house his “oldest established permanent floating crap game.” Noticing the apparently incorruptible Sister Sarah peddling salvation from her Save-a-Soul Mission, Nathan bets high-roller Sky Masterson the $1,000 that he can’t convince Sarah to run off with him for a romantic tryst in Havana. Add in Nathan’s perpetual fiancée Adelaide, and you have a comedic framework that has delighted audiences for generations.

Mary Zimmerman
Mary Zimmerman

Zimmerman’s history of adaptation gives her a particular insight and appreciation for the work Burrows and Swerling accomplished. “Out of that vast field of stories, what they gathered to make one evening is kind of astonishing.” Zimmerman enthuses, “The compression of it, the way the formality of the music mirrors the way Runyon has his characters speak. That kind of contraction-less way of speaking, which the gangsters have, the overly formal vocabulary. I’m full of love towards it as a work of art.”

Zimmerman’s love extends to the creation of the stories and, unlike previous revivals which have basically mirrored the original production’s vaguely late-40s time frame, she has placed the show squarely in the Depression Era Manhattan in which they were written. “We leaned into the fact that Runyon is a Depression Era writer, and yet, none of the people in his stories are depressed.”

Beyond this interesting modification, Zimmerman has no desire to deconstruct, or force a directorial conceit on the show. She enters the rehearsal room with love and respect for the piece. “It’s a masterpiece of the genre. I think that’s sort of indisputable. I feel it’s a machine of pleasure. And I wanted to be close to that. I wanted to, hopefully, absorb some of the skill and savvy that went into it.” But Zimmerman also focuses on the storytelling aspect of the process. “Each part of the plot is dependent on every other part of the plot. It’s actually really tight. Everything hangs on the need to get a space for the crap game, which leads to the bet, which leads to the romance, which all hangs on the same thing. It’s all interdependent in a really brilliant way.”

The cast members, most of whom are veteran performers at OSF, have nothing but praise for Zimmerman and her method of rehearsing the show. Kate Hurster, who plays Sister Sarah Brown, explains how Zimmerman’s preparation is crucial: “Her eye is so expert, so story-focused, so grounded, that this wasn’t the blown-out-of-proportion, neon, big cartoony thing. These are human beings and she’s always kept us there.”

Rodney Gardiner plays Nathan Detroit and feels that Zimmerman’s rehearsals are a safe, but structured sandbox in which the actors can play. “She encourages a culture of joy in your work. I was always glad to show up to rehearsal and I never wanted to leave,” Gardiner recalls. “She gives enough room for you to figure things out. She also has a strong guiding hand, so you don’t have to worry about the architecture of the show. That’s her job. She keeps the bones in place. She gives you room to wiggle around and figure out all those little details that actors really care about.”

Any show transferring from OSF will have been conceived as a production within the repertory system that is the foundation of that theatre. This raises considerations that a commercial producer would never encounter. At the most basic acting level, a Hot Box Girl in the chorus of Guys and Dolls might be playing Hero in Much Ado About Nothing the following day. Repertory actors must cultivate versatility and constantly challenge themselves to broaden their range.

Robin Goodrin Nordli. Photo by jenny Graham.
Robin Goodrin Nordli. Photo by jenny Graham.

Repertory realities affect the physical production as well, compelling the director and designers to explore creative solutions to sharing a stage. “It’s very minimal scenically,” Zimmerman explains, “which I love anyway. But that guided us. I said, ‘We’re not doing a jagged skyline of New York in the background. It’s got to live on stage with three other sets and it’s got to change over in two hours. And rigging is one of the most difficult things to do changeovers of, so it’s not as neony.’”

Performing in rep also deepens the relationships of the actors who return each season. “You have actors that you’ve worked with season after season,” says Hurster, now finishing her 6th season with the company. “So you have this vernacular, this shorthand, this intimacy, that you have to rush when you’re in a show with someone for the first time. Jeremy [Jeremy Peter Johnson plays Sky Masterson] and I have worked together for years now, but we hadn’t played opposite each other. But we just have a comfort and an ease that comes with it. And with that, the audience also gets to watch that dynamic.”

That dynamic combined with Zimmerman’s guidance and the sensationally entertaining material is what brought audiences to their feet in Ashland. As Rodney tells it, “As much fun as it was to build this show, and to do this show, it’s so wonderful to finish and look out and to see that they (the audience) had just as much fun. I know how corny that sounds, but we’ve felt that the whole run.”

GUYS AND DOLLS, from December 1 — December 20 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.

GuysandDolls_LogoNathan Detroit desperately attempts to raise $1,000 in order to rent a space to house his “oldest established permanent floating crap game.” Noticing the apparently incorruptible Sister Sarah peddling salvation from her Save-a-Soul Mission, Nathan bets high-roller Sky Masterson the $1,000 that he can’t convince Sarah to run off with him for a romantic tryst in Havana.

Michael Van Duzer

Michael Van Duzer

Michael is an award-winning playwright and director. For over 25 years he has reviewed opera productions around the country for a variety of print and online outlets. During the past year he has added theater to his reviewing duties.