New York is back in town. The New York, that is, of Lindy's cheesecake, stage shows at the Roxy and a skyline that was a testament to the boundless energies and limitless aspirations of its citizens.
All the great Broadway musicals - even if they were set in Oklahoma or Catfish Row - were built on the spirit of New York, but none captured the exhilarating energy of the city better than "Guys and Dolls." The gorgeous revival that opened last night is a welcome reminder of the vitality both the city and its musical theater used to take for granted.
Abe Burrows' book made a cogent dramatic structure out of Damon Runyon's sketches about gangsters and their molls. Every plot turn that grows from Sky Masterson's improbable bet that he can take Sister Sarah Brown of the Salvation Army to Havana has a surprising emotional component.
Most miraculous is Frank Loesser's score. The lyrics use a New York vernacular as colorful as Runyon's but never as strained or self-conscious. Even the love songs have a wit and a streetsmart pungency that never undercut their romantic thrust.
Loesser's melodies are simpler than they are in "The Most Happy Fella." Think of "Luck, Be A Lady." It's barely a handful of notes in cycles that might easily be monotonous. Genius, however, can make apparent simplicity both dramatic and dazzling.
Every song sizzles, but the score boils over in "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat," a glorious piece of choral writing that made the house erupt at the preview I saw. These days Mount Pinatubo has nothing on the Martin Beck.
In a time when the skyline is dominated by flat-topped glass boxes, "Guys and Dolls" cannot be the same as it was in the age of alabaster and marble. Jerry Zaks has conceived the revival as a kind of luscious cartoon.
It begins with Tony Walton's sets, dizzy caricatures of Times Square with blues that out-Disney Disney and yellows Chester Gould would die for. The garish mosaic continues in William Ivey Long's sumptuously two-dimensional costume designs.
Burrows' comic dialogue is handled adroitly by the cast, particularly Faith Prince as Adelaide and Nathan Lane as Nathan Detroit. Lane's impish style may not have the earthiness Sam Levene brought to the character, but he is a skilled comedian. So is Prince. At times her vocal squeaks seem a mite too calculated, her lamentations too coy. If her Adelaide lacks a smidgen of pathos that might deepen the laughter, Prince nevertheless mines the jokes with great expertise.
Peter Gallagher makes Sky Masterson sexy, stylish, aloof but altogether winning. Always an impressive actor, he moves into musicals with great panache. As Sarah, Josie de Guzman sings beautifully. She stepped into the role late in the run and still seems a bit uneasy but she will grow.
Ruth Williamson is great as a Salvation Army general; John Carpenter acts the role of Sarah's surrogate father better than he sings it. Walter Bobbie and J.K. Simmons are rousing in the title song and the "Fugue for Tinhorns." All of the gangsters are topnotch, especially Ernie Sabella and Herschel Sparber.
Christopher Chadman's choreography is spectacular, and it is great to have as spectacular a dancer as Scott Wise soaring and exulting in "Luck Be a Lady."
Zaks deploys his large forces with customary skill. Even a simple moment like the male chorus standing arm to arm at the front of the stage singing "The Oldest Established" is thrilling.
Forget the quibbles. This is a revival to treasure.
Everyone is entitled to a favorite Broadway musical, and mine is "Guys and Dolls" - if you're counting, the runner-up is "Pal Joey" - and I imagine I would probably enjoy this gorgeous gem of musical even in the poorest setting known to a dog, open-air and sitting in a rainstorm. Without a raincoat. With the flu. So I'm prejudiced. Sue me!
But believe me, offered the splendiferous new staging of "Guys and Dolls" has been given by Jerry Zaks, which opened at the Martin Beck Theatre last night, my heart sings, my soul roars and I feel tingly good all over. Baby, I'm a bell, and I'm ringing.
When "Guys and Dolls" - which is even the formidable Frank Loesser's greatest achievement, streets ahead of any of his other music and lyrics - was new more than 40 years ago, its Runyon-esque flavor, emerging stealthily from Abe Burrows' crisply stylized book and gushing over in Loesser's songs like a 42nd Street open fire hydrant in a heat wave, made it indelibly different.
And then there was that first Runyonlike cast - led both in New York and London, where I saw it - by Sam Levene, Vivian Blaine, Stubby Kaye and Johnny Silver. Where could you see their equal? Here and now at the Martin Beck.
The story - taken from an old Damon Runyon tale of Broadway's fictive life and times - deals with a Salvation Army girl wooed and won by a dazzling gambler, and boasts a handsome interlocking subplot of the misalliance between another Broadway sharpie and a cabaret singer, his eternal fiancee. It has a grace and zest to it which carries all before it.
This time around, Zaks' nonstop staging and the exuberantly vivid choreography by Christopher Chadman, provides it with a special whirling gallantry that crystallizes the seedily glamorous, never-quite-was-land of Runyon nostalgia.
Adding very precisely to this whirligig of razzmatazz enchantment are Tony Walton's brilliantly attitudinized settings (this season New York is a Tony Walton Festival), William Ivey Long's smartly traditional costumes and - by gosh, by golly, by Broadway - the cast.
Forget Sam Levene and movieland's Frank Sinatra, the masterful Nathan Lane's squashed but indomitable Nathan Detroit is even as good as Bob Hoskins in Richard Eyre's hitherto overall definitive 1982 production for Britain's National Theater, and all the others in this bustling cast play in much the same ballpark.
I could (probably should, but can't) fault Faith Prince's Miss Adelaide (that cabaret singer who immortalized psychosomatic post-nasal drip) for often virtually impersonating Vivian Blaine's singing, but she is so wittily hilarious on her own account that all is forgiven - indeed there is nothing to forgive.
As the ill-sorted lovers the unexpectedly strong-voiced Peter Gallagher makes the most charismatic Sky Masterson you could encounter on a Las Vegas picnic, while Josie de Guzman's Sarah proves sweet and spunky enough to convert Bugsy Siegel. Add to them the adroitly caricatured Walter Bobbie, J.K. Simmons, Steve Ryan and Herschel Sparber and you have a cast fit for Winchell.
But of course the real triumph still belongs to the ghost of the fabulous fable-spinning Runyon, the living presence of Loesser and Burrows, and Zaks and Chadman for bringing this classic "Guys and Dolls" once more to spectacular life. If you have one musical to see on Broadway make it this and make it quick.
If you have ever searched Times Square to find that vanished Broadway of lovable gangsters, wisecracking dolls and neon-splashed dawns, you must not miss the "Guys and Dolls" that roared into the old neighborhood last night. As directed with a great eye and a big heart by Jerry Zaks and performed by a thrilling young company that even boasts, in Faith Prince, the rare sighting of a brand-new musical-comedy star, this is an enchanting rebirth of the show that defines Broadway dazzle.
It's hard to know which genius, and I do mean genius, to celebrate first while cheering the entertainment at the Martin Beck. Do we speak of Damon Runyon, who created the characters of "Guys and Dolls" in his stories and with them a whole new American language? Or of Frank Loesser, who in 1950 translated Runyon into songs with melodies by turns brash and melting and lyrics that are legend? This being the theater department, please forgive my tilt toward Loesser, whose musical setting of phrases like "I got the horse right here" and "a person could develop a cold" and "the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York" are as much a part of our landscape as the Chrysler Building and Radio City Music Hall.
The thing to remember about Runyon is that he was born in Kansas and didn't reach Manhattan until he was 26. His love for his adopted town is the helplessly romantic ardor of a pilgrim who finally found his Mecca. That romance is built into the text of "Guys and Dolls," in which the hoods and chorus girls engage in no violence, never mention sex and speak in an exaggeratedly polite argot that is as courtly as dese-and-dose vernacular can be.
Runyon's idyllic spirit informs every gesture in this production. Mr. Zaks, the choreographer Christopher Chadman and an extraordinary design team led by Tony Walton give the audience a fantasy Broadway that, if it ever existed, is now as defunct as such "Guys and Dolls" landmarks as Klein's, Rogers Peet and the Roxy. Yet it is the place we dream about whenever we think of Runyon and Loesser or anyone else who painted New York as a nocturnal paradise where ideas and emotions are spelled out sky-high on blinking signs and, to quote another lyric, "the street lamp light fills the gutter with gold."
Mr. Zaks, whose achievements include most relevantly the Lincoln Center revivals of "Anything Goes" and "The Front Page," stages the book of "Guys and Dolls" for both its comedy and its emotions. That book was written by Abe Burrows from an abandoned first draft by the screenwriter Jo Swerling, and its solid construction reflects the influence of the original production's director, George S. Kaufman. But funny and fast-paced as the dialogue is, the show seems about more than Nathan Detroit's farcical route to a crap game and the calculating efforts of Sky Masterson to win a bet by bamboozling the puritanical Sarah Brown, of the Save-a-Soul Mission, into a dinner date in Cuba. This company turns up the temperature just enough to induce goose bumps in the guy-and-doll encounters of "Guys and Dolls."
Peter Gallagher, who made an impression in one Broadway musical (the short-lived "A Doll's Life") before moving on to heavier dramatic duties, is a heaven-sent Sky Masterson with brooding good looks, a voice that always remains both in mellow key and in gritty character, and a dark, commanding presence that is up to the high theatrical stakes of "Luck Be a Lady." Mr. Gallagher also has a shy smile that slowly breaks through his tough facade much as the Havana moon does through the clouds behind him. When he clasps the hands of his Sarah, Josie de Guzman, to his chest while she sings her half of "I've Never Been in Love Before," you feel the sweet infatuation typical of couples in Mr. Zaks's productions and you understand that the Loesser who wrote this ballad is indeed the same man who wrote "My Heart Is So Full of You" for "The Most Happy Fella." Ms. de Guzman, whose refreshing mission doll is bemusedly prim rather than a schoolmarm, makes a lovely partner to Mr. Gallagher, with a voice that peals joyously as well as tipsily in "If I Were a Bell."
The evening's biggest laughs, of course, belong to Ms. Prince's Miss Adelaide, the Hot Box dancer and perennial fiancee who stops the show with her sneeze-laden lament in Act I, then brings down the house in Act II with "Take Back Your Mink," surely the only strip-tease ever written as one long nasal kvetch. Ms. Prince, the only bright spot in the late "Nick and Nora," here crosses into another dimension as she punctuates "A Bushel and a Peck" with Marilyn Monroe squeaks, roars a lifetime of frustration into the phrase "then they get off at Saratoga, for the 14th time" and turns the word "subsequently" (as in "Marry the man today and train him subsequently") into a one-word playlet that makes happily ever after sound a bit like boot camp.
With her big features, piled blond hair and prematurely matronly sexuality, this wholly assured actress echoes Judy Holliday as much as she does her famous predecessor as Adelaide, Vivian Blaine. The combination, though, is a bracing original. As her eternal intended, that supremely gifted actor Nathan Lane does not remotely echo the first Nathan Detroit, Sam Levene, for whose New York Jewish cadences the role was written. Mr. Lane is more like a young Jackie Gleason and usually funny in his own right, though expressions like "all right, already" and "so nu?" do not fall trippingly from his tongue. But once he and Ms. Prince loudly lock vocal horns during "Sue Me," chances are you will forgive him anything.
In all his casting, Mr. Zaks seems to have followed the producer Cy Feuer's 1950 dictum of seeking "people with bumps." There are some classic gangster mugs on the mugs in this company, including those of J. K. Simmons (as Benny Southstreet), Ernie Sabella (Harry the Horse) and Herschel Sparber (the villain, Big Jule). Walter Bobbie nicely breaks the chubby mold established by Stubby Kaye in the part of Nicely-Nicely Johnson (the character is thin in Runyon) and leads an infectious "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" that is choreographed to a claustrophobic frenzy by Mr. Chadman, who has such spectacular dancers as Scott Wise and Gary Chryst stashed in his chorus.
Mr. Chadman's other dance routines, including the energizing "Crapshooters' Dance" led by Mr. Wise in the depths of a sewer, are in the spirit of Michael Kidd's wonderful originals (as re-created in the Sam Goldwyn film) but are not imprisoned by them. The same is true of the orchestrations, which preserve all the indelible passages of the Ted Royal-George Bassman originals but are helpfully amended by contributions from Michael Starobin and Michael Gibson.
The production's highly stylized design is in a class apart. William Ivey Long's boldly striped and extravagantly iridescent costumes pay an acknowledged debt to those first created by Alvin Colt and Irene Sharaff for Broadway and Hollywood, much as Mr. Walton's sets take a recognizable bow to Jo Mielziner and Oliver Smith, who respectively designed the original settings for stage and screen. The brilliant lighting, which offers a rainbow of hues for all times of day, is by Paul Gallo, who both here and in "Crazy for You" is setting a high standard for his art that would have been unimaginable, and technologically unattainable, in the days of Loesser or the Gershwins.
But Mr. Walton's achievement here goes beyond his nostalgic evocation of 1950's musicals, with his pointed use of the painted drops that dominated Broadway design mechanics of that time. In his "Guys and Dolls," a black-and-white front curtain of an urban scene reminiscent of a Reginald Marsh drawing can pull up to reveal the same scene, now painted on a backdrop, that remakes New York in deeply saturated colors from the fantastic spectrums of Matisse and Dufy. A vintage pay phone can be splashed in sea green, as if rising up from an audience's buried collective fantasy of a distant past, and stacks of newspapers thrown on a Times Square pavement at daybreak can form a lonely composition worthy of Edward Hopper's New York.
Everything about Mr. Walton's design, like nearly everything about this production, demands that the audience look at "Guys and Dolls" again and see it fresh. The cherished Runyonland of memory is not altered, just felt and dreamt anew by intoxicated theater artists. No doubt another Broadway generation will one day find a different, equally exciting way to reimagine this classic. But in our lifetime? Don't bet on it.