Friday, February 17, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "Guys and Dolls" at Lamb's Players Theatre

Toned-Down "Guys" Has Heart but Lacks Heat

Strong voices and a few winning performances carry Lamb’s Players likeable, if lackluster, revival

By Donnie Matsuda

Before seeing Lamb’s Players revival of Guys and Dolls, I would have been willing to bet any amount of money that their season-opening production would be a winner.

It certainly has all the makings of a hit: Lamb’s is the third largest theatre in San Diego County (behind The Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse) and they have the luxury of recruiting some of the top talent and the best designers our region has to offer. Recently, they have proven just what they can do with big, bold Broadway-style musicals on their intimate downtown Coronado stage and their rafter-raising “Music Man” and spectacular “Servant of Two Masters” were both indications they were headed in the right direction. And now, with the sure-fire firecracker of a Broadway musical that is Guys and Dolls, it is hard to imagine their revival being anything but supremely stellar and utterly divine.

Brent Schindele Sky and Kelsey Venter as Sarah in Lamb's Players "Guys and Dolls." Photo by JT MacMillan.

However, after seeing their mostly durable production, one can’t help but be a bit underwhelmed by their final product. There is no doubt that their 23-member cast is filled to the brim with talent (and some truly outstanding performances which we’ll get into later), but what is lacking is the bright, broadly comedic bounce of the piece that brings all of Damon Runyon’s colorful characters together into one tight and tuneful confection. While director Kerry Meads does an excellent job of using every inch of the small playing space available to her (including a second story catwalk and a Hot Box stage that doubles as the Save-A-Soul Mission exterior), she has a more subdued vision for this show and her toned-down take results in a production that is solid, but lacking any pizzazz or panache.

Performance-wise, the show gets off to a clunky start and doesn’t really hit its sweet spot until late in the first act, when Sky takes Sarah to the lush, tropical locale of Havana. It is there that the pace and energy of the show suddenly picks up, greatly aided by some sizzling and steamy choreography by Colleen Kollar Smith. From then on, the production goes full steam ahead and manages to stay strong all the way through the second act to a rousing and show-stopping rendition of “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat” lead by an exuberant Tim Roberts as Nicely Nicely.

Spencer Rowe as Nathan and Eileen Bowman as Adelaide. Photo by JT MacMillan.

The male leads in the cast are, for the most part, sufficient in their roles. Brent Schindele brings a beautiful baritone to the role of Sky Masterson and while his acting does not quite bear the confidence or charisma that the role demands, his more rigid interpretation still does the job. As Nathan Detroit, Spencer Rowe downplays the character’s over-the-top antics and is more believable than buffoon as manager of the oldest established floating crap game in New York. His down-to-earth Nathan is a bit different, but it works. In other roles, Danny Boman is appropriately strong voiced as Benny Southstreet, Tim Roberts brings a lot of exuberance to the role of Nicely Nicely Johnson, and the assorted motley crew of gangsters (Andy Collins as Harry the Horse, Victor Morris as Rusty Charlie, and John Rosen as Big Julie, among others) are all solid in their supporting roles. Last but certainly not least, Ralph Johnson should be commended for his touching turn as Sarah’s father, Arvide Abernathy. His “More I Cannot Wish You” is genuine, heartfelt, and sweetly sung.

But it is the broads that deliver some outstanding performances, keeping the show vibrant and exciting to watch. Kelsey Venter is absolutely terrific as Sarah Brown. Her sweet soprano and stern personality are ideal for the role and she also knows how to let her hair down (both literally and figuratively) with some incredibly convincing physical comedy in “If I Were A Bell” and “Marry the Man Today”. Her bell-clear rendition of “I’ll Know” and “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” are vocal highlights in a uniformly well-sung show. As the squeaky voiced, cold-catching, forever fiancé Adelaide, Eileen Bowman gives a scene-stealing, tour-de-force performance. Her pert and perky rendition is right on the mark and she doesn’t miss a note (or a step) in her thrilling song-and-dance numbers, “A Bushel and a Peck” and “Take Back Your Mink.” She also taps into Adelaide’s sensitive side with a tender “Adelaide’s Lament” and elicits some big laughs in her duets “Sue Me” and “Marry the Man Today.” Given the incredible range of Boman’s captivating performance, her bravura star turn may be reason enough to see the show.

And it wouldn’t be Guys and Dolls without the iconic Frank Loesser score. Here, musical director/music supervisor Jon Lorenz does a fine job of keeping the music bright and bouncy with his mostly tight five piece band. While there were some pitch and blending issues on opening weekend, I’m sure the kinks will work themselves out as the band becomes more comfortable during the rest of the show’s run.

Eileen Bowman (center) surrounded by her Hot Box Dolls. Photo by JT MacMillan.

Overall, the muted vision for this production carries over into the technical aspects, as well. Mike Buckley’s set is surprisingly barren with a generic city skyline (beautifully backlit by Nathan Pierson’s lighting) and a steely catwalk that slinks down and around the band that is front and center. Jeanne Reith’s era-appropriate costumes are nice (though they could benefit from a few more bold pops of color here and there) and Patrick Duffy’s sound design goes off without a hitch.

All things considered, there’s a lot to like about Lamb’s Players’ Guys and Dolls. While it is not a high-octane, knock-your-socks-off revival, it does more than justice to the classic musical fable we all know and love, and it makes for a mostly entertaining evening of theatre.

With strong voices, a handful of solid performances, and a tuneful score, this serviceable production is sure to delight even the most jaded of theatergoers.

I’d be willing to bet on it.

Things to know before you go: Guys and Dolls plays at Lamb’s Players Theatre through April 1st, 2012. Performances are Tuesday – Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 4pm and 8pm and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets range from $26-$64, with discounts available for youth (5-17), seniors, and active duty military. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (619) 437-6000 or visit

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