PlayMakers Repertory Company has slowly but surely been winning me over to the pleasures of good musical theatre. One of its prime strategic weapons has been Jeffrey Meanza, who understands musicals in his bones, and has been known to steal a show or two. Meanza came nine summers ago to start PRC’s Summer Youth Conservatory. He meant to stay three months, but instead stayed on as education director, then as associate artistic director for PRC. Now he’s departing, to join Joseph Haj at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater–but not before one last SYC swan song.
The Meanza-directed classic musical Guys & Dolls opened last night on the Paul Green Theater stage at the UNC Center for Dramatic Art in Chapel Hill, and it is a delight. The high school-age students in the summer intensive program have excelled–there are no weak links in this professionally-mounted production. The on-stage talent is augmented by that of the technical student apprentices in a parallel program in back-of-the-stage theatrical work. The young people in the SYC programs come from many schools all over the Triangle area, so to put on this glittering, big-hearted show, they’ve not only learned lines and music and stagecraft, but the great lesson of bonding with strangers to make something bigger than any of them.
Guys & Dolls, with its music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, is based on stories and characters by Damon Runyon from the 1920s and 1930s. The musical was first staged in 1950, and promptly won a Tony Award. It has been made for film, and re-staged any number of times. Some of its songs have been recorded and sung so often by so many that their origin is nearly lost in the haze of popularity. The reason for this? They are just plain good.
Meanza and crew have set this production in the New York of the mid-1930s, and it’s carried off with panache. Scenic designer Robin Vest makes the most of the possibilities of the stage’s lift and slide mechanisms, and together with lighting designer Dominic Abbenante, gives us grit and glamour galore. Jade Bettin has, as usual, produced a stageful of gorgeous costumes, and music director Mark Lewis, as always, accomplishes small miracles. After several weeks of total immersion in the choreographies shown at the American Dance Festival, Matthew Steffens’ work didn’t strike me as particularly exciting, but it suits the show, and there are several really charming bits.
But it is the young actors who bring all the troubles and hopes of the guys and dolls to life, and for whom you will laugh and clap. Several have strong singing skills, and some have real voices. Most notable is Maya Ison, who plays the Mission sergeant Sarah Brown. High, clear, powerful and nuanced, this voice will be going places. Ison is also lovely in her characterization. Also strong–and funny!– is Ainsley Seiger, who plays Miss Adelaide, the Hot Box revue star engaged for 14 years to Nathan Detroit, organizer of the oldest permanent floating craps game in New York. Seiger and Ison’s duet near the end of Act II is perfectly fabulous.
Although his voice is not as strong, Ethan Fox makes a good Nathan Detroit, quick with the patter and believably harassed by the exigencies by his undertaking and by Lt. Brannigan (Jack Carmichael). He is, however, overshadowed by the fourth lead, gambler Sky Masterson, dashingly played by Gideon Chickos. Chickos’ portrayal of his character’s transformation from heartless, insouciant risk-taker to honest lover is mature beyond his apparent years. His scenes with Miss Sarah (Ison) are particularly winning, although he commands the entire theater space with his rendition of “Luck Be a Lady,” as he prepares to roll for the souls of his fellow sinners.
You can get lucky yourself with this show tonight through Sunday, and again next weekend. PRC box office: 919.962.7529.