North Shore Music Theatre Deals A Winning Hand with ‘Guys and Dolls’ (Five Stars)

“Guys and Dolls” at the North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly, MA. Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows; Score by Frank Loesser; Direction by Mark Martino, choreography by Michael Lichtefeld, musical direction by Craig Barna; Costumes by Paula Peasley-Ninestein. Runs October 30th through November 11th.

There was a time when gangsters were a lot more fun, if not in deed at least in popular culture depictions. Sure, there were movies like Jimmy Cagney’s White Heat and Angels with Dirty Faces that accurately portrayed the brutality of organized crime, but low rent criminals of the sort that Damon Runyon portrayed in his stories and articles were just guys and dolls (women) doing their jobs – they just operated on the fringes of society in a slightly less moral way. Before Las Vegas and Atlantic City and during Prohibition, booze and gambling – two of life’s most potentially fun and funniest vices (until you qualify for a twelve step program) – were the businesses of these fun loving criminals, at least until The Godfather, Scarface, and Goodfellas ruined the party with brutally real depictions of murder and the drug trade. But I’m also pretty sure no-one is anxiously waiting for a Broadway musical version of Scarface with Tony Montana belting out a version of “Say Hello to My little Friend” with a nose full of cocaine and an AK-47.

Which is why it is such a royal treat to see “Guys and Dolls” at the North Shore Music Theatre. The production hits every mark that makes for a great musical production: Great book, memorable musical numbers, and imaginative choreography delivered by a top notch cast who really know how to get the most out of a song. This is no dumb story with a bunch of songs tacked on like jokes on a Family Guy episode; the score brings a great and funny book to life.

In 1930’s New York, small time hustler Nathan Detroit (Jonathan Hammond) is a man with a bucketload of problems: he needs to find a $1,000 ASAP to host his floating (moveable) dice game for a slew of action-hungry gamblers; his long-suffering (14-year engagement) showgirl/fiancé Adelaide (the awesomely ditzy Mylinda Hull) is getting ready to walk if he doesn’t marry her; and law enforcement is coming down hard on his rumored activities. Enter Sky Masterson (Kevin Vortmann), a handsome, sophisticated, well-heeled high stakes roller looking for a game of dice. Masterson is just what Nathan needs to get out of his jam, but not in the way Nathan would have envisioned.

Plot line number two involves the trying times of Sgt. Sarah Brown of the Salvation Army-styled Save-a-Soul Mission, who is desperately trying to help the wayward gamblers, drunks, and prostitutes in the Broadway neighborhood clean up their acts whether they’re ready or not. The lovely Sarah is played by regal beauty Kelly McCormick (who knows a little about the God business, being married to a Rabbi in real life) who is a gifted singer and terrific actress to boot. In order to solve his $1000 dilemma, Nathan bets Sky that he can’t get Sgt. Sarah to go on a date with him to pre-Castro Havana, Cuba for dinner. Nathan sees this as a sure thing, because surely a goody two shoes like Sarah would be appalled by a degenerate gambler like Sky. But as we all know, opposites attract – that’s why we have divorce lawyers.

The musical scenes involving Sarah and Sky are terrific, as McCormick has an operatic command of her voice, and Vortmann has a domineering presence to go with his vocal chops. The pair shine either in duet (“I’ll Know” and “I’ve Never Been In Love Before”) or singing to each other (“If I Were a Bell” “My Time Of Day”).

But Sarah and Sky are not the only love story. Nathan’s tortured fiancé Adelaide (Hull) nearly steals the show as she puts increasing pressure on Nathan to finally marry her, and it looks like she may get her wish, as Nathan’s patchwork life plan requires more and more maintenance to stay afloat. This relationship is a lot less dramatic and heck of a lot more warped than Sarah and Sky’s and that makes for some big laughs. Hull’s work on her numbers alone (“Adelaide’s Lament”) and in duets (“Sue Me” with Nathan and “Marry The Man Today” with Sarah) as well as her show performances with the Hotbox Girls are funny and winning.

But don’t get the impression that this is solely a love story. The antics of the gamblers are the essence of this show. Say what you want about the benefits of a spiritual life, but watching “degenerates” try to negotiate life on their terms is a lot more fun and makes for GREAT theater. From the classic “Fugue For Tinhorns”, where Nicely-Nicely (the brilliant Wayne W. Pretlow), Benny Southstreet & Rusty Charlie’s speculate about horse about picking winners at the horse track to the show-stopping “Sit Down,You’re Rockin’ The Boat” (with Nicely-Nicely and Ensemble rocking the house) this is a heartfelt ode to the joys of being bad, without being too bad or beyond redemption.

Michael Lichtefeld chorography is vibrant and imaginative, especially in “Havana” and “The Crap Game Dance”, and the costumes are terrific, with a kind of a day-glo feel reminiscent of the Warren Beatty/Madonna Dick Tracy movie from 1990. If you’re someone who’s a little gun shy about seeing musicals, this is the one to go to help you get over that. Mamma Mia it ain’t.

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