Sunday, March 1, 2009

Guys and Dolls

There's nothing like a big, brash, old-fashioned Broadway musical: very little depth and even fewer surprises in the story, fun dance numbers and lots of memorable songs. What's not to like? I had been especially anticipating the one we saw last night, Guys and Dolls, because I've never seen the show before at all—not even the movie on television—and I only know the greatest hits version of the score (Fugue for Tinhorns, A Bushel and a Peck, Luck Be a Lady, Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat and the title song). When I first moved to New York, I read one of Damon Runyon's books of short stories (I was living a block away from Times Square on 43rd Street at the time and it just seemed appropriate) and thoroughly enjoyed them but, for whatever reason, I just wasn't sufficiently interested to make the $75 per person* investment for the 1992 revival.

When we received our tickets and I saw where we were sitting—C1 and C3, the third row on an aisle—I was sort of pleased: the only time we'd ever sat that near the stage was when we saw Fiona Shaw in Beckett's Happy Days at BAM and I think that being able to see her facial expressions so clearly made that production even stronger for me. I soon realized, almost from the minute we sat down, that my experience would be different here: Broadway musicals are—and should be—directed to work for the back row of the balcony; what looks good from row PP doesn't look the same from row C. These are the seats for people who want to see the actors sweat (which they do in this show, incidentally, quite a lot), not for those of us who are more interested in a total theater experience. And that's a shame because I could tell that director Des McAnuff has peppered some very finely crafted moments throughout the piece that I would have really enjoyed... if only I could have seen them. The centerpiece of the visual design was floor-to-ceiling video projections by Dustin O'Neill—animated backdrops to establish the many locations around Manhattan; they even move in sync with the 3-D set pieces that fly in and slide onstage from the wings. Unfortunately, from where we sat, the angles were all wrong—a door unit that clearly fit perfectly into a projected building facade if you were sitting at least halfway back in the center revealed a big gaping white space behind it from row C. I could only guess at how well the set pieces and video were timed to coincide with the actors movements because it was all too big to take in without constantly turning my head up and down and left and right.

McAnuff's production actually begins during the overture, Runyonland, with an actor as "Damon" seated at a typewriter; after a writing only a title and his byline—the words he types appear on the enormous screen—he stops and rips the paper from the platen, which the animation mimics to reveal the first of several gorgeous historic Manhattan cityscapes. Clearly frustrated, Damon wanders out into Times Square to find inspiration. A series of dance numbers give us a glimpse of the characters and vices that really did inspire Runyon—boxing matches, underground poker games and assorted street scenes, all very nicely choreographed by Sergio Trujillo. Damon will eventually become a silent observer to key scenes during the play; it's an interesting device that doesn't really go anywhere because he's only needed for this opening montage... but at least it was used consistently throughout.

As Catherine said, it's a good production but, unfortunately, good is the enemy of great.† I thought the play really came alive in the musical numbers—the singing is uniformly strong. The standout performance, we both felt, is Steve Rosen as Benny: he makes bold choices in a supporting role that really fill the stage without overpowering the material—one of the few, in fact, that rises to the level of the piece. Mary Testa also reaches that level of strength; my only complaint, really, was her clearly improvised addendum to Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat—it's cartoonish and inappropriately anachronistic pandering. Lauren Graham does a very good job in her Broadway debut as Adelaide, as does Kate Jennings Grant as Sarah Brown. I expected a better performance from Craig Bierko (who very wisely jumped ship earlier this season on To Be or Not Be): he's fine as Sky Masterson but I really thought he'd be great. My biggest disappointment, though, was Oliver Platt, of whom I'm a huge fan—he was a phenomenal Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night at the Delacorte in 2002; his Nathan Detroit felt very understated, which is completely at odds with the character and out of character for the actor portraying him.

My last piece of criticism for this production concerns the sound design. I long ago came to terms with the fact that no Broadway musical will ever again feature unamplified actors—even the shows that were once performed that way in theaters that are still being used. I believe that this is due, in part, to the training that actors receive—it seems to me that vocal projection is not emphasized as much as it once was; in part to the reality that amplification protects the actors' voices when they're performing eight shows a week (although I fear that it also encourages bad habits that result in weak performances); and to our expectations of what constitutes naturalistic acting these days—diction is not prized in real life, why would you use it on the stage? Last year, Catherine and I saw Sunday in the Park with George and the sound was handled very well—the actors all wore body mics but the designer was able to craft the design so that voices appeared to come from approximately where the actor was onstage. The sound design for Guys and Dolls is, unfortunately, dreadful—at least from the third row. Only one line all evening sounded like it was coming from anywhere near the actor—and then only because it was: the operator didn't turn Oliver Platt's mic on quickly enough and we actually heard him say a couple of unassisted words. To be fair, it's possible that it sounded better from a few rows back... but doesn't that mean that the seats that were once prized are much less valuable, since you can't see or hear the work the way the artists intend for you to do?

There was one moment in the evening that epitomized for me why I love the theater better than film or television. Early in Act I, as Nicely-Nicely (Titus Burgess, a fine singer wearing an ineffective wig for the 3rd row) and Benny were singing, regaling us with what motivates a "guy" (I'll give you a hint: it relates back to the title), the set began one of its magical changes—a revolving door piece floated off stage left as enormous lighted marquees dropped down from the flies. Something went wrong, however, because the revolving door didn't quite make it off and two marquees crashed into it, causing them to sway dangerously over the actors' heads. Immediately, a voice commanded over the loudspeaker—"Hold. Actors clear the stage." Burgess and Rosen scampered off as several stage managers and technical personnel hurried over to the wings to see how they could safely extricate the door from the marquees—which they were able to do in a few minutes. As they continued to study the door unit, director McAnuff came out and introduced himself and explained that the computer system had lost track of where the revolving door was onstage and now they were just trying to make sure nothing was damaged; as soon as they were sure it was okay, the show would continue—which happened just a few seconds later. Burgess and Rosen returned to their places—to thunderous applause—and they picked up the song where they'd left off. The rest of the show went off without a hitch but it made for a very exciting 10 minutes.

Incidentally, our Playbills for the show did not include an "At This Theater" column. Since it's one of Catherine's and my favorite program items, I include it here.

*$126 today. That is the state of the art, my friends.
Voltaire's actual quote, we've just discovered is "The perfect is the enemy of the good." Catherine and I both agree that it's better his way.

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