The 1955 Marlon Brando/Jean Simmons movie version of the classic 1950 musical “Guys and Dolls” wasn’t a terrible movie, said Wayne Bryan.
“But it ill-served the show itself,” said Bryan, who is going back to original Tony Award-winning source material for a revival of the stage blockbuster at Wichita State University this week. Bryan, longtime producing artistic director for Music Theatre of Wichita, is guest director for this WSU student showcase.
“The movie stretched out the talking parts to 2½ hours when its style calls for a brisk two hours, matching the speed of the Times Square setting. And five of the original songs were dropped, including the now classic ‘A Bushel and a Peck,’ ‘I’ve Never Been in Love Before’ and ‘Marry the Man Today,’” Bryan said.
“In the original, every scene was good and every song was good. It had perfect construction with consistently wonderful writing,” Bryan said. “That’s the version we’re doing.”
Based on the quirky writings of newspaperman Damon Runyon – who hailed from Manhattan, Kan., but made his indelible literary mark in that other Manhattan in New York in the 1920s and 1930s – “Guys and Dolls” re-creates the colorful underworld of professional gamblers pursuing “The Oldest Established Permanent Floating Crap Game in New York.”
“No other show sounds like it, because of Runyon’s unique dialogue, which uses no contractions. There is a formality to the language of the small-time grifters and thugs. They are always polite, making them colorful rather than menacing,” Bryan said.
“The show is in the top 10 of classics, like ‘Oklahoma!,’ ‘My Fair Lady’ and ‘West Side Story.’ Everything in it works.”
Added WSU choreographer Amy Baker Schwiethale: “It’s deceptive how much dance there is, from the stand-alone ballet that leads into ‘Luck Be a Lady’ to the girly-girly numbers in the nightclub to even an intricate Latin number in Havana. There’s a lot of variety. It’s a choreographer’s dream. I am very inspired by the brilliance of (original choreographer) Michael Kidd. I believe in learning from the greats and sharing it with students.”
The tale revolves around suave gambler Sky Masterson, who is amused to be targeted for righteous redemption by earnest – and a bit naive – Sister Sarah Brown of the Save-A-Soul Mission. Meanwhile, Sky’s commitment-phobic best buddy, Nathan Detroit, is trying desperately to keep his nightclub singer girlfriend, Adelaide, from demanding to get married after only 14 years of engagement.
The musical was adapted from Runyon’s short stories by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser. It was selected as the winner of the 1951 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, but political pressure against Burrows by the communist chasers on the House Un-American Activities Committee forced the prize to be withdrawn, leaving no drama Pulitzer that year.
Still the musical ran on Broadway for 1,200 performances and won five Tony Awards, including best musical. The film version starred Brando as Sky, Simmons as Sister Sarah, Frank Sinatra as Nathan and Vivian Blaine reprising her Broadway role as the irrepressible smart dumb blonde, Adelaide.
A new movie version is in the works from 20th Century Fox as a vehicle for Channing Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Sky and Nathan, although their “dolls” have not been announced.
For the WSU production, Josh Brown is Sky Masterson, romantically bantering with Claire Gerig as Sarah Brown, while Gavin Myers is Nathan Detroit trying to avoid walking down the aisle with Emily Vargo as Adelaide.
“Sky is a really great guy. He’s suave and in control. He’s a man of mystery that nobody can quite figure out. He is living his own way. That’s what I like about him,” said Brown, a fifth-year music theater major from Jefferson City, Mo., who previously was in WSU’s “Crazy for You.”
“There’s nothing I don’t like about Sky, but if he has a flaw, it’s that he’s scared of love,” Brown said. “He is afraid that love will make him lose control. He always thought his heart would be safe. And then he meets Sarah. My favorite moment is when he tries to put her in her place but ends up singing ‘I’ll Know (When My Love Comes Along).’”
For her part, Gerig described Sarah as “very controlled” and “reserved” but having a soft side that she doesn’t want people to see.
“I really like how positive she is. She really cares about the Mission and the people she helps. But she is also a romantic, which is a side she is afraid to show. I find her much more interesting than what you see on the surface,” said Gerig, a senior from Wichita featured this past summer in Music Theatre’s “Betty Blue Eyes” and “Mary Poppins.”
“I identify with Sarah because we’re both passionate about what we do,” Gerig said. “I find a lot of humility in Sarah because she listens to her critics. She is willing to take their advice to heart.”
Nathan Detroit is a real go-getter, said Myers, a sophomore from Belle Plaine.
“He’s ambitious. He’s clever. He’s a quick thinker. He likes to make sure things happen on time. Sure, he’s a little shady because he’s a gambler. But he’s actually honest and loyal,” said Myers, who was in WSU’s “Crazy for You” and “She Loves Me.” In 2008 as a child actor, he was the stalwart urchin Gavroche in Music Theatre’s “Les Miserables.”
“I identify with Nathan’s ambition and energy because I’m doing a double major in music theater and dance. I also like to think I’m loyal like he is,” Myers said. “Nathan loves Adelaide but he doesn’t want to feel trapped. That’s why they’ve been engaged for 14 years instead of married. The key is when he realizes that she is the most important thing in his life.”
Adelaide is the built-in showstopper of “Guys and Dolls,” partly for her adorable dumb blondeness and partly for her comic musical numbers, from “A Bushel and a Peck” to “Take Back Your Mink” to “Marry the Man Today (And Change His Ways Tomorrow).”
“Adelaide is so much fun to play because there are lots of layers to her. It’s not a burden to be funny because I love being a ham,” said Vargo, a senior theater major from Gardner previously seen in “Good News,” “She Loves Me” and “Crazy for You.”
“She’s very street-smart. She wants to be taken seriously because she equates that with being high-class. But her relationship with Nathan doesn’t reflect that,” Vargo said.
“A lot of people make the mistake of dismissing her as a dumb blonde, but she is an optimist who has sweetness and joy and wants the best out of life. She knows she will get married. It’s just a matter of how long she is willing to be patient. It’s empowering when she sings ‘Marry the Man Today,’” Vargo said. “I’m not anything like her but I relate to her genuineness. The humor comes out of her being real to me.”
Others in the colorfully named cast include Bailey Burcham as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Scott Salem as Benny Southstreet, Michael Allen as Arvide Abernathy, Max Wilson as Big Jule, Dylan Harris as Rusty Charlie, John Stefansen as Lt. Brannigan, Alyson Gollady as Gen. Cartwright and Eric Stephens as Harry the Horse.
Adelaide’s back-up singers in the Hot Box nightclub are Sommer Camp, Leslie Carrillo, Rachel Gorman, Kourtney Halksworth, India Martens and Emily Monrad. Ensemble members are Casey Bagnall, Donnie Chauncey, Aaron Craven, Trevor McChristian, Alex Castenada, Ian Sutton, Deiondre Teagle, Hannah Fernandez, Liz Jarmer, Katelyn Stoss and Joella Wolnik.
Music director is WSU alum Philip Taylor. Scenic design is by David Neville, with lights by WSU alum Maddie Nevins and costumes by WSU student Amber Creasser.