Ogden’s Ziegfeld Theater opened their newest production, Guys and Dolls, to a nearly packed house last night. Strains of Sinatra and Louis Armstrong wafted through the air pre-show, creating anticipation in the crowd. The lush, satin curtain hiding the stage from the audience was a throwback to ‘40s and ‘50s movie palaces, so when it slowly rose the crowd was ready to step back to a time when ‘the war’ was over, hats in public were necessary, and Broadway was the haunt of gamblers and women of questionable virtue.
A quick recap of the story: Guys and Dolls, taken from a story by Damon Runyan, is set in a vague post-War period. With many big money gamblers in town, hustler Nathan Detroit is desperate to find a place to host his “Oldest Established Floating Crap Game in New York”. He is equally desperate to avoid marrying his girlfriend of 14 years, Adelaide. Salvation Army sergeant Sarah Brown is desperate to save the souls of the gamblers, drinkers, and loose women of New York, but right now she’s most interested in filling the seats of her church before she is relieved of duty by her General. Gambler Sky Masterson is just looking for the next big bet.
Guys and Dolls is a safe bet in musical theater-obsessed Utah, with productions being presented often, in venues both large and small. Don’t let familiarity with the story breed contempt, though. The Zieg has done its usual bang up job of taking the old stories that draw local crowds and breathing new life into them.
Director Carol Madsen has put together a talented team of set designers, lighting people, and costumers. The Zieg is always inspired in their use of minimalist sets that use their smallish stage to the best effect, and this production is no different. A set of large playing cards arches over the stage, flanked by a bank of white screens, all used brilliantly to show projections of city scapes and time of day cues which made larger painted sets unnecessary and kept the scene changes brisk. A brick wall anchors the look to a street or room, and provides a fitting backdrop for era-appropriate props. The look of the actors is also nicely done, from hair to shoes.
It’s nice to see Kaycee Neff (“Sarah”) back on the Zieg’s stage! Her strong voice is put to wonderful use in songs like “Follow the Fold” and “If I Were A Bell”, and her comic timing is impeccable. The cast sometimes struggled with losing the humor of the old jokes in this show on the downbeat, but Kaycee had a fine night.
She also had a nice, believable chemistry with her leading man, JJ Bateman (“Sky”). Bateman, whose last Zieg show was Rock of Ages, is very good in the role of Sky Masterson, handling Runyon’s odd (to modern ears) character diction well. Though Frank Sinatra played the part of Nathan Detroit in the 1955 film, he coveted the role of Sky Masterson; Bateman plays the role with a Sinatra flair and delivery that seems inspired by Sinatra. He particularly shines in Act II, delivering a rendition of “Luck Be A Lady” that is a lovely nod to Ol’ Blue Eyes (who didn’t get to sing the song in the movie, but added to his concert performances for years).
As nice as the leads are, this show is enlivened by the ensemble, particularly the Hot Box Girls. They’re funny, sassy, and energetic, driving a show that might be languid without them. The showstopper piece, “Havana”, is a big win for the ensemble! It’s bright and funny, and Madsen directed her cast well. Such a big group on the stage at once could have been a difficult to understand muddle (something that was a struggle in the play’s opening scene), but Madsen and the group had the timing down in this crucial scene. Kudos to them all!
The absolute stand outs in this cast of Guys and Dolls are Mejai Perry (“Harry and Horse”/”Hot Box Girl”) and Christie Stolworthy (“Adelaide”). Both have on the spot comic timing, a firm grasp on their respective accents, and stage presence galore. Both are a joy to watch in every scene.
The opening night production struggled with mike problems and volume issues—it was sometimes difficult to hear the singers over the music—but those things will likely be cleared up in later shows.
A night out with these Guys and Dolls is no gamble (ba-dum-tisch!) The Ziegfield and this talented cast have once again brought something interesting to Ogden theater. Go see it twice!