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Guthrie rolls out a winner with 'Guys and Dolls'

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Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Justin Keyes) commands attention.
Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Justin Keyes) commands attention in the Guthrie production of "Guys and Dolls."
Courtesy of T Charles Erickson

When you heard that the Guthrie Theater's summer musical was to be "Guys and Dolls," maybe your eyes rolled like a pair of crooked dice. Didn't we perform that one back in the eighth grade? What's left to discover?

Plenty. When a street full of gamblers who appear to have been lifted from a comic book erupts in a frenzy of tightly choreographed body percussion, it's clear that there is much more going on than the reheating of a popular old chestnut. The "Guys and Dolls" that opened at the Guthrie Friday night may be familiar material, but it's also wonderfully new. 

For the uninitiated (and the 9 percent of Minnesotans who were born in some other country), here's a recap: It's New York City in the mid-20th century.  A mug by the name of Nathan Detroit (Rodney Gardiner) runs an illegal dice operation, "the Oldest Established Permanent Floating Crap Game in New York." Nathan is the constant target of police Lieutenant Brannigan (Robert O. Berdahl, costumed in explicit homage to Dick Tracy). Nathan has to keep finding new venues for the game, because Brannigan manages to sniff out each location as soon as the dice start to roll. 

Now Nathan's down to his last prospect: a garage whose owner wants a thousand-dollar fee up front. He doesn't have the money, so he bets a big-time gambler, Sky Masterson (Jeremiah James), that he can't talk Miss Sarah Brown (Olivia Hernandez) of the Save-A-Soul Mission into a date in Havana. As in Cuba. (The Cuban Revolution was still but a glimmer in Fidel Castro's eye.) That bet sets in motion the first of two love stories at the heart of "Guys and Dolls."

There. The only essential plot element we haven't yet touched upon is the second love story — Nathan's 14-year engagement to Miss Adelaide (Kirsten Wyatt), the headline performer at the Hot Box Nightclub. Adelaide has been writing her mother that she and Nathan are actually married, and in fact are parents already. So she'd like to get reality caught up to her cover story, and the sooner the better. 

The characters and some of the plots and subplots are the work of Damon Runyon, a journalist-turned-short-story-author of the early 20th century. After Runyon died in 1946, a creative team started working his characters into a musical for Broadway. Frank Loesser's songs, with a book written by Jo Swerling and rewritten by Abe Burrows, became a staple of American theater that has been putting high school actors into ill-fitting fedoras for decades.

The Guthrie's production has its own fedoras, from Nathan's purple one to Brannigan's bright yellow, matching his Dick Tracy trench coat. Another costume worth noting is the white dress that ensemble member Caroline Innerbichler wears to recreate Marilyn Monroe's encounter with a sidewalk subway grate in "The Seven Year Itch." 

An equally splendid design element is the airplane that carries Sky and Sarah to their date in Havana. It's not often that you hear an audience react to a prop with delighted gasps and applause. 

As Adelaide, Wyatt turns in a memorable performance in a physically and vocally demanding role. Other standout cast members are Jon Andrew Hegge as Harry the Horse, Joel Liestman as Benny Southstreet and Regina Marie Williams as General Matilda B. Cartwright. And Karen Wiese-Thompson brings serious menace as a gender-nonconforming Big Jule, the Chicago gangster.

But it is Justin Keyes' performance as Nicely-Nicely Johnson that really sells the show. "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" is a reliable crowd-pleaser, but this rendition takes the song to an entirely new level. It's probably best to leave a bit of mystery here, so I'll just say this: "Sit Down," all by itself, is reason enough to see this show. But it's far from the only one.

My advice is to get there early in the run. "Guys and Dolls" is only playing until Aug. 25, and you might want to leave yourself time to see it again.