“What’s happenin’ all over? I’ll tell ya what’s happenin’ all over” (—or at least down Garden Grove way in Southern California): “One More Productions” –the Award-Winning Theater-Company housed in the landmark “Gem Theatre”, is presenting as their first show of 2020, the Frank Loesser blockbuster musical, “Guys And Dolls”! Billed as “A Musical Fable Of Broadway” this recipient of the 1951 Tony Award for “Best Musical” is based on several short stories by Prohibition-era Writer, Damon Runyan (who specialized in tales involving the often colorfully monikered New York City denizens of the day,) primarily “The Idyll Of Miss Sarah Brown” and “Blood Pressure”. With a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, the now-iconic score by American Theater ‘Legend’ Frank Loesser is jam packed with magnificent songs like “Luck Be A Lady Tonight”, “I’ll Know When My Love Comes Along”, “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ The Boat”, “A Bushel And A Peck”, and the buoyant title number. (How many other musicals can boast a roster of songs that has seen just about every tune heard having gone on to be a genuine American standard?) For this new staging, “One More Production’s” Co-Founder (and recent “Americana Award” Honoree for “Garden Grove Citizen Of The Year”,) Damien Lorton fulfills numerous functions including Director (working in conjunction with Co-Director Nicole Cassesso,) and Musical Director on top of taking on the co-starring role of “Nathan Detroit”. Meanwhile, the choreography duties are shared by Heather Holt-Smith, Kady Lawson and Race Chambers. The outcome of all their combined efforts is a highly commendable re-invigoration of this Musical Theater staple and long-time charmer!
A decidedly off-beat romantic musical-comedy, through it we are introduced to hapless gambler, “Nathan Detroit” as he heatedly tries to raise the cash to continue his prime hustle as the proprietor of “The Oldest Established, Permanent Floating Crap Game In New York”; trouble is (as he lets everyone within earshot repeatedly know) “The heat is on” (principally in the person of a skulking Police Lieutenant named “Brannigan” who is bound and determined to shut him down.) “I was just over at the Biltmore Garage” Nathan informs his cronies, “Nicely-Nicely Johnson” and “Benny Southstreet”; “Joey Biltmore says he might take a chance and let me use the place—provided I give him one thousand bucks upfront!” (and as luck—or lack of it—would have it our boy is, at the moment, flat broke!) Informed that renowned ‘high-roller” “Sky Masterson” is in town, it’s suggested that “Nathan” try borrowing the grand from him: “Not Sky” he counters; “with him that kind of money ain’t lendin’ money—it’s bettin’ money!” Hence, “Mr. Detroit” schemes to get his mitts on the cash by challenging “Masterson” (—himself notorious for taking on the most outlandish bets—) that the self-professed ‘ladies-man’ can’t get “Sergeant Sarah Brown”—a pretty, but straight-laced “Missionary Doll” who runs the unsuccessful “Save-A-Soul Mission” on Times-Square, to go out on a dinner date with him. (If that weren’t tricky enough, the restaurant which the debonair “Sky” wants to take her is in Havana Cuba!) Throw into the mix how “Nathan” himself is perpetually offering his own long-suffering “Doll” (–of over a decade and then some,) a Showgirl named “Miss Adelaide”, a barrage of excuses as to why he isn’t (so far anyway) ready to tie the knot—not to mention trying to keep the existence of his on-going crap-game a total secret from her. When some errant gambler casually asks him about it, she overhears: “And what was that about?!” “Adelaide” asks tersely, to which “Nathan” replies, “Uh…his wife’s havin’ a baby and he’s nervous—it’s his first wife!” Spanning the bustling heart of the “Big Apple” to the sultry cafes of 1940’s Havana, Cuba, and even down into the sewers of New York, eventually—by hook or by crook—these “Guys” are sure to wind-up at the securely wedded sides of their chosen “Dolls”!
Director Lorton has demonstrated ample times previously that he definitely knows this era (—and this show also, having performed in it several times before.) This understanding benefits this production especially well, preparing him to incorporate small–but significant–moments of authenticity with respect to the times, the place, and the characters who exist in them. Indeed, it would be a safe bet to say that Lorton has even concentrated his direction to accentuate most of the utterly priceless laughs this script is chock full of! Moreover, given his awareness of the massive amount of story that needs to be told in only two acts, he keeps the overall pace fairly swift and robust—slowing the stage exploits down just enough now and then, to make a specific point, or to permit a particular song or dance routine to be better savored. Likewise, the Choreographic team of Chambers, Lawson and Holt-Smith infuse the proceedings with plenty of sharp and elegant maneuvers—many of which pay homage to, (without ever copying outright,) those introduced by Michael Kidd in the Broadway original. While the entire cast seems capable in the fancy footwork department, much of the terpsichory focuses around Nick Seigel and Katie Walsh who add immensely to the production’s “Wow” factor with the sensational gymnastic ‘punctuation’ they provide to many of the dance sections, starting with the opening wherein they appear as a pair of acrobatic street performers, then later as they take the lead in the ‘muy piquante “Salsa” dance that introduces the interlude in “Havana”. Commencing as the pair initiate a defined, sensual rhythm, they’re joined by several other couples—who stagger their motions just enough to keep the spectator’s eyes aware and involved, all at different intervals accentuating their moves with some high steps and even higher kicks, until their motions and the music swell into a comedic free-for-all (gratis “Miss Sarah’s” more than slightly inebriated state!) In Act Two, the actual “Crap Game”—held in the city’s sewers (for want of anywhere else that won’t attract police attention) materializes in an impressive, Jerome Robbins-inspired extravaganza with daring leaps, pirouettes and even more limber feats of athletic dancing prowess (who ever knew that shooting dice could be so cool?!)
Clad in a loud checkered suit and a (non-matching) wide-brimmed fedora with a cherry-red headband, Damien Lorton is brilliant as “Good Ol’ Reliable’ “Nathan Detroit”! As a performer, Lorton has a way with the libretto’s abundance of slick ‘throwaway’ lines, and he has an awesome singing voice too! If anything, it’s something of a shame that he doesn’t have more opportunities to show-off exactly how incredible it is, but as written back in 1950, “Mr. Detroit” wasn’t afforded much in the way of ballads or solo stanzas. (When Frank Sinatra was cast for the 1955 big-screen adaptation, several new songs were inserted just for him, and one can’t help but think it would have been enjoyable to hear Lorton’s trying them out here.) Still, when he can vocalize, as in “The Oldest, Established…” it’s always exhilarating. What he does have is an amazing lead character to flesh-out (“Nathan” is, after all, at the core of all the undertakings) and in this regard he never disappoints! At the same time, played with a surfeit of good ol’ fashioned ‘panache’, Johnny Fletcher also excels as “Sky (real name “Obadiah”) Masterson”! One of his most eloquent accomplishments involved with this role perhaps, is how he so adeptly maintains the generally brisk pace of the goings-on, while still coming off so smooth and suave (Yes, his “Sky” is a streetwise fast-talker but he’s a dashing one at that!) Recalling a young Perry Como or Tony Bennet, Fletcher’s song-styling is also relaxed and insightful, which ironically gives his numbers an increased vitality. “My Time Of Day” (the prelude to the celebrated” “I’ve Never Been In Love Before”) is a categorical victory for him and, transpiring late in the first act, is a sincere high point–both for him and the whole first half. As for the number it leads into, let’s just put it thusly: there couldn’t be a better way to bring the Act to a successful—and riveting—close! Of course, many will tell you that the most recognizable of all the songs “Sky” is given bar none, is the spectacular “Luck Be A Lady Tonight” and, you can bet Mr. Fletcher absolutely pulls out all the stops for it! Backed by the male ensemble, (who furnish some rousing counter obbligato) the momentum steadily builds up to Masterson’s fateful roll of the dice, bursting into a phenomenal climax that itself is thoroughly worth the wait as well (in a phrase: musical theater moments don’t come any finer than this!)
Re-teaming with him is Erika Baldwin, who also beguiles as his unlikely “Lady Love”, “Sarah Brown”. (Many among “The Gem’s” audience regulars are bound to recall their equally laudable work together from OMP’s 2017 production of “The Music Man” and they’re as compelling—or better—to watch together here!)
For those less familiar with this uber-talented Singer-Actress, were there any doubts as to the depth of Baldwin’s abilities, she quickly puts them to rest leading “Follow The Fold”, entreating on-lookers to “Follow the fold–out of the darkness and the cold and the pain and shame in which you wallow!” Her initial approach seems to be that of a hyper-kinetic (or totally overwhelmed) ‘Angel’ of that neon-tinted ghetto known as “Broadway”(which is keeping within the rapid-fire pace Lorton has set for the entire production.) However, later she slows it down a tad–allowing for a nice contrast to her earlier scenes, making “Sarah” all the more human and empathic behind her starched button-down collar and severe Salvation Army cap. Nowhere is this more apparent than in those moments introducing the rollicking “If I Were A Bell” which also rate among Baldwin’s funniest (–and as sublime as she’s proven in dramatic roles such as in last summer’s “West Side Story”, as a Comedienne she’s every bit as appealing!) Now in Havana and feeling the intoxicating effect of a Bacardi infused ‘milk shake” (“the natives call it ‘Dulce De Leche” Sky informs her–) “Sarah” lowers all her pretenses and simply lets loose, with the resultant number becoming a major crowd pleaser! Just prior to this, the sumptuous melody, “I’ll Know (When My Love Comes Along)” is a fantastic showcase for Ms. Baldwin’s lush soprano voice, while just as invigorating is when Fletcher counters–giving his verses a commensurate power in their own right. It’s a duel triumph for both performers and their combined crescendo makes it a bona-fide showstopper (Count this one a major knockout toward the midpoint of Act One!)
Adriana Sanchez also hands over another amazing—even transfixing—performance as “Nathan’s” not-always-so-patient “Fiancée” (–of 14 years running,) “Miss Adelaide”. Anyone acquainted with her earlier work at “The Gem” is likely to marvel at her versatility—particularly when it comes to her comedic roles, and this occasion is emphatically no exception!
In fact, here, her pristine comic ability is positioned front and center as it is she who gets the very best gag-lines and certainly the best comic numbers (–and you can rest assured Swerling and Burrows dialogue gives her plenty to work with!) Whether they occur ‘on stage’ at “The Hot Box” nightclub where our gal “Addy” headlines, (as with the “Big” production dazzlers: “Bushel And A Peck” and the post intermission opener, “Take Back Your Mink”,) or the more introspective “Adelaide’s Lament” (whither she fears “just from wondering whether the wedding is on or off” it’s giving her “a bad, BAD cold”–) she does a first-class job interpreting each number’s often accelerated patter, frequently peppering them with a droll sense of ‘mock melodrama’. As a matter of fact, she elevates many into out-and-out comic showstoppers! Such is the case with “Take Back Your Mink”—a lilting anthem to moral outrage despite it being conveyed as a saucy burlesque romp, as “Adelaide” and her ‘girls’ dress down to black lacy unmentionables—complete with garters and fishnet-stockings! (–Hubba-Hubba!) Afterward, “Adelaide’s Lament—Part Two” is also impressive, and even a bit touching, revealing yet another ‘texture’ to her character. Alongside Lorton, the two demonstrate undeniable and engaging chemistry between them, and they similarly share a number of delightful refrains, chief among them “Sue Me”—another A-Plus duet to the productions’ and the performers’ supreme credit. Outfitted with plenty of wily turns-of-phrase and breakneck verbal tongue-twisters, “Miss Adelaide”, disenchanted with “Nathan’s” empty promises, finally lets him have it: “You gamble it here, you gamble it there–you gamble on everything, all except me–and I’m sick of you keeping me up in the air till you’re back in the money again!”
This, even as he swears that his devotion to her is the one ‘honest’ thing in his entire life: “Serve a paper and sue me, sue me, what can you do me?” he pleads; “I love you!” Just before the finale, Sanchez joins with Baldwin for a nifty dual soliloquy “Marry The Man Today”. An even later comedic ‘coda’ to all the intrigues, “Miss Adelaide” and “Miss Sarah” compare notes on the state of matrimony while trying to iron out their individual romantic dilemmas in time for the big “Happy Ending”: “ Slowly introduce him to the better things–respectable, conservative, and clean–but marry the man today!” They both resolve; “Handle it meek and gently– Marry the man today (and ‘train him’ subsequently!)”
Opening the show with their preliminary salvo called, “I Got The Horse Right Here”, Ryan Addison as “Nicely-Nicely Johnson”, Brayden Martino as “Benny Southstreet” and Bryan Fraser as “Harry The Horse” are each evenly matched in strength and savoir-faire (vocally speaking) and they strike collective gold right out of the starting gate (so to speak) serving up some jazzy, jivey 3-part harmony. Addison is also a blue-chip caliber scene-stealer in the best and boldest–but always thrilling ways, as “Nicely-Nicely Johnson”, and he also does a dynamite job essentially ‘conducting’ the male chorus from the sidelines during “The Oldest Established Floating Crap Game In New York” (which, by the song’s ride-out, has them all practically singing a-Capella to downright breathtaking effect!) Addison’s truly big ‘score’ though, comes with the Eleven O’Clock roof-raiser “Sit Down You’re Rockin The Boat” to which he even gives a few terrific operatic flourishes! Martino and Addison also contribute still more awesome musical ‘oomph’ with their ‘flash’ duet—the titular “Guys And Dolls”, through which the two verbalize arguably some of the best-known lyrics in Musical Theater history, bemoaning the outrageous lengths a “Guy” will go to impress a “Doll” he’s taken with: “Call it sad, call it funny,” they belt-out; “—but it’s better than even money that the Guy’s only doin’ it for some Doll!” Affable support is also supplied by Ira Trachter as Sarah’s gentle-spirited Grandfather “Arvide Abernathy”. Too often relegated to the show’s ‘second string’ of supporting characters, this time “Arvide” is given his moment to shine with “More I Cannot Wish You”—a soothing ode to his Granddaughter that in Trachter’s adroit care, is elevated into one of the score’s sweeter, more stirring offerings. John Gillies also strikes a fine balance with his turn as that ’Lousy’ “Lt. Brannigan” –painting him as an intriguing, (and vaguely unsettling) mix of classic “T.V. Cop” Joe Friday and “The Crypt Keeper”! “Oh hello, Lieutenant,” Nathan greets him upon his first entrance; “I hope you don’t think I was talking about you…there are other ‘Lousy Brannigans’…”
Scenic Designer Wally Huntoon’s vibrantly colored set gives the pretense of a series of rag-tag leaning buildings into which has been incorporated plenty of individual lights that luminously recall the “Look” and “Feel” inherent to the “Golden Age” of the same “Great White Way” that gave rise to both the show’s source material, and the decade it was developed and debuted as a musical. These in turn, are complimented by the Lighting Design by Mendenhall Productions which in the same way infuses plenty of incandescent hues—painting the happenings in healthy doses of Pinks, Purples, Turquoise and Amber—comparably recalling an aura of an old technicolor movie from that self-same period. Not to be overlooked either is Luis Cornejo’s stunning Costume Designs—which themselves are nothing short of eye-popping! What’s more, they might even rank among the most vivacious and imaginative as have been seen on “The Gem” stage—ever! Take for instance, the ‘Showgirls’ outfits for the farm-themed “Bushell And A Peck”: Canary yellow leotards with ‘feathered’ skirts, along with matching yellow ankle-boots and hats resembling oversized egg-shells; while in their midst, “Miss Adelaide” is decked out in a pink-and-white bustier highlighted with a pink silk wrap, pink silk gloves and a matching bonnet (“I feel like some scrambled eggs!” she riffs when surrounded by them!) Kudos also goes out to Chris Squires and the nine-piece orchestra he oversees (they may be tucked out of sight, but without these talented folks and the live music they dispense, the show could neither dance nor sing with nearly the same spirit or spring!)
For a fresh, new retelling of this old favourite that you’re sure to love considerably MORE than a ‘Bushel or a Peck”, head on down to catch this ‘living doll’ of a show! Having officially opened on Friday, February 28th ,“Guys And Dolls” is slated for a five week run, playing through Sunday, March 29th, 2020 at “The Gem Theatre”, located at 12852 Main Street in Garden Grove CA. Showtimes are Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM with Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM, (with additional Saturday Matinees on March 7th and March 14th, at 2:00 PM) Tickets may be obtained by calling “One More Productions” at (714) 741-9550, ext. 221, or logging onto: www.onemoreproductions.com . Special discounts are available for Seniors (60 and over), and Children (12 years and under,) while reduced-price “Student Rush” Tickets for Thursday and Friday performances may also be obtained 30 minutes in advance of curtain at the Box Office with a valid Student ID.
Production Stills By Ron Lyon, Courtesy Of Shoko Araki And “One More Productions” (www.onemoreproductions.com) Special Thanks To Damien Lorton, Nicole Cassesso, Shoko Araki, Ron Lyon, Heather Holt-Smith, Kady Lawson and Race Chambers And To The Cast & Crew Of “The Gem Theatre” and “One More Productions” 2020 Staging Of “Guts And Dolls” For Making This Story Possible