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‘Guys and Dolls’ sparkles at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

The “guys” during a floating crap game in “Guys and Dolls” / Photo by Jenny Graham
The “guys” during a floating crap game in “Guys and Dolls” / Photo by Jenny Graham

BY HOLLY JOHNSON // Marvelous dancing, great tunes and a solid cast

Some call it the perfect Broadway musical. This writer is inclined to agree. Behind the good-natured gangsters with their snappy duds and floating crap games, behind the salvation army folk with their relentless religious zeal and clean living,  behind the dance-hall cuties with scant outfits and big dreams, lies an old-fashioned love story (make that two) in “Guys and Dolls.” It’s currently in top form in the Angus Bowmer Theatre at Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival, running in repertory through November 2015.

Damon Runyon provided great material for a musical about characters living in the Big Apple when he wrote a cluster of short stories, including “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” and “Blood Pressure,” from which the prize-winning musical  with lyrics and music by Frank Loesser was inspired. At OSF it springs to life with a bluster of youthful energy, precise joyful dancing and a cast that shines from top to bottom. Musical fables of Broadway this rich and absorbing don’t come along every day. It’s two-and-a-half hours (including intermission), and it’s worth every minute.

An American newspaperman, Runyon was best-known for his stories about people living around the theater district in New York City in the ’30s and ’40s. Hustlers, hoofers, gamblers and religious do-gooders formed his pantheon of characters, and director Mary Zimmermanpolishes up her actors to embody these colorful figures.  Loesser’s amazing score and lyrics are prize-winning, including numbers like the joyous “If I Were a Bell,” “A Bushel and a Peck,” “Luck be a Lady” and “Marry the Man Today.” The list gives a nod to the upbeat musicals of yesteryear, rife with clever lyrics, complex hummable tunes, sparkling humor where true love–and that dream of a house with a picket fence–conquers all. Comic sketches dissolve into great individual numbers, and the sexual innuendos are subtle, (innocent even) but they’re there.

Set designer Daniel Ostling has created a NYC backdrop that appears to be an enlarged vintage postcard. This is not the Big Apple we know today: It’s sheer nostalgia, an image we might have found in an old box of letters. Costumes by Mara Blumenfeld capture a stylized  midcentury look, including immaculate pinstripe suits for the natty gamblers and low life fellas, people with names like Harry the Horse (Tom DeBruno) and Nicely-Nicely Johnson (the wonderful Daniel T. Parker, who can jump onto a table with apparent ease). The female denizens of the Hot Box, a burlesque dance spot, wear dandy fluffy, skimpy costumes that make it easy for them to  flounce, preen and undulate across the stage.

The lead actors (as well as the great chorus folk)  seem so committed to this show that it’s hard to find flaws anywhere. Robin Goodrin Nordli, an OSF regular, is delightful as Adelaide, the showgirl with the high-pitched, scratchy Brooklynesque voice (think Barbara Nichols). She’s been engaged to Nathan Detroit (Rodney Gardiner) for many years, and until he settles down, that dream of a white picket fence is a distance mirage. Jeremy Peter Johnson finds the perfect cocky attitude for Sky Masterson (think Marlon Brando from the movie), Nathan’s  sleek, charming pal who makes a bet with him that he can whisk Salvation Army lass  Sarah Brown (the marvelous Kate Hurster) away to  Havana for a weekend. If he cannot, he’ll bring his gambler buddies to a meeting at Army headquarters. The plot thickens, culminating in the humorous, spirited “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.”

And of course, the dance number in Havana, with Hurster’s Sarah delightfully spinning out of control, is sumptuous, thanks to Daniel Pelzig’s sparkling choreography. The cast makes it look easy. My favorite  number, though, is “The Crap Shooter’s Dance,” an all-male spectacular that segues into “Luck be a Lady,”one of Loesser’s masterpieces. I guess I don’t understand the popularity of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s oversized, unfunny musicals. Loesser, with his zingy humor and luscious tunes, brings us everything a musical needs on a shiny platter.

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