Milquetoast guys & one-dimensional dolls

By Scott Harrah

Despite infectious songs, this version fails to catch on

“Guys and Dolls” should have everything going for it. It’s a classic American musical with a superlative score, but under the direction of Des McAnuff, this revival comes across as anemic and lifeless.

This vibrant musical, with infectious songs like “Luck Be a Lady” and “Take Back Your Mink,” should be loaded with energy and pizzazz. Sadly, however, the production never quite takes off. This is shocking, considering that director Des McAnuff has brought exhilarating shows like “Jersey Boys” to Broadway.

“Guys and Dolls” is loosely based on stories by Damon Runyon, and there’s a character, Runyan (Raymond Del Barrio), playing the legendary writer, who makes various onstage appearances throughout the show (something that was never in the original production or previous revivals).

In a long-gone era of New York when gamblers ruled the city at night, Nathan Detroit (Oliver Platt) has been dating his blonde “doll” Adelaide (Lauren Graham) for 14 years – but spends too much time trying to find out where to hold a crap game. There’s also a curious romance between gambler Sky Masterson (the marvelous Craig Bierko) and Bible-thumping beauty Sarah (Kate Jennings Grant), who runs the local “Save a Soul Mission.” The charming but smarmy Sky is intent on luring Sarah on a quick getaway trip to Havana. The trouble is, nobody has any real chemistry with each other, and that’s crucial in a romantic musical.

Oliver Platt comes across as way too much of milquetoast for the character of Nathan Detroit. Lauren Graham plays Adelaide like a one-dimensional caricature of a warm-hearted floozy, with a phony “New Yawk” accent that reminds one of Madonna when she used a similar tone in the awful film “Who’s That Girl?” Graham can certainly sing, but her acting is strained and unnatural. Kate Jennings Grant is serviceable as the elegant missionary Sarah, but it’s Craig Bierko who mostly steals the show with his charisma and mellifluous voice.

Other standouts include Titus Burgess as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, and he truly shines in the number “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.” Veteran stage actress Mary Testa, of “Chicago” and “Xanadu” fame, is wonderfully outrageous as the tough-as-nails General Cartwright, a woman who’s determined to shut down Sarah’s branch of the “Save a Soul” mission unless a group of sinners show up for a midnight prayer meeting.

The main problem here is the direction. None of the characters seem to gel as a cohesive unit, and that’s a shame when there’s such glorious material here. Everyone on stage seems to be doing his or her own thing, and this makes the production appear unfocused.

Some of the show’s most famous production numbers, such as Adelaide’s “Take Back Your Mink,” simply do not work. Here, Adelaide and her Debutantes seem more like strippers than showgirls when they throw off their minks and sport glittery corseted costumes.

The show also lacks adequate sets. The lavish “Guys and Dolls” deserves much more than the high-tech, animated projections of old New York street scenes we see here. There are indeed some Neon signs (including brightly lit dice on the center stage), but it’s not enough to take us back to Runyon-era Manhattan. Despite the marvelous onstage orchestra and the terrific vintage songbook, this revival of “Guys and Dolls” never quite delivers the emotional punch of Runyon’s stories, Jo Swerling and Abe Burrrows’s book and Frank Loesser’s music.