Revisiting shows over and over again can be an occupational hazard for reviewers. In the case of the classic musical “Guys and Dolls,” I have seen many professional, community and educational productions of the piece throughout my writing career, but I decided to endure it one more time because of my love of educational theatre. A product of it myself, I believe in its inestimable value and impact on young artists. Having said that, I am pleased to report that Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre’s Young Artists Program’s production of “Guys and Dolls” seen Friday at Carmel’s Center for the Performing Arts was an absolute delight.
It didn’t hurt that none other than Michael Feinstein, the center’s artistic director, surprised the audience when he stepped on stage prior to the show’s overture. The world-renowned entertainer and Great American Songbook Ambassador is in town for his week-long Songbook Academy summer intensive, which culminates with tonight’s finals. After sharing some historical information about the musical and its composer, Feinstein set the anticipation level high when he enthusiastically introduced the show.
I simply cannot stress enough how impressed I was with YAP coordinator Anne Beck’s direction and choreography that resulted in a thoroughly engaging and entertaining version of a well-worn vehicle. Featuring uber-energetic, multi-talented students from 12 Central Indiana high schools, the production had polish that mirrored Beck’s own first-rate pedigree as a professional singer-actor-dancer.
As far as the musical itself, for those of you who may not have seen “Guys and Dolls,” here’s a bit of background. Highly stylized, with dialogue that mixes formal language with slang, the musical, which premiered on Broadway in 1950, is based on a story and characters created by American author Damon Runyon. With music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Jo Swerling and Abe Borrows, the story begins with gambler Nathan Detroit trying to organize a large-stake craps game. In order to obtain the funds to secure a location, Detroit makes a bet with his notorious gambling colleague, Sky Masterson. If Masterson can convince straight-laced missionary, Sarah Brown, to have dinner with him in Havana, Cuba, then Masterson wins—an outcome Detroit is convinced will never happen, thereby giving him the funds needed for his craps game. At the same time, however, Detroit has to pull the wool over the eyes of his kindhearted showgirl fiancée, Adelaide, Engaged to Detroit for 14 years, the long-suffering Adelaide pressures him to choose her as his wife over gambling. In a nutshell, Runyon’s tale reinforces that saints and sinners are not that all different and that love conquers all.
When experiencing high-schoolers playing adult characters, one has to suspend belief in order to connect with them and the story. In the case of these appealing performers, more often than not, that was easy to do because of the caliber of their talent which made many of them convincing.
Nathan Nouri as Sky Masterson and Katelyn Soards as Sarah Brown both turned in exemplary vocal performances and showed romantic chemistry as an unlikely couple falling in love during their magical duet of “I’ve Never Been in Love Before.”
There were other notable standouts. Chief among them were Katherine Patterson as Miss Adelaide and Hayden Elefante. Of all the renditions of “Adelaide’s Lament,” I have witnessed, Patterson’s was one of the best. Plus, her duet with Elefante in “Sue Me” displayed their individual gifts for physical comedy and timing that are way above average. I wanted to know more about these two gifted performers because their performances captivated me. Unfortunately, cast bios were not provided in the printed program. With both in possession of star appeal, it’s easy to predict, that, with the right breaks and contacts, Patterson and Elefante could go on to have successful careers in musical theatre if so inclined.
Making the most of their time on stage and showing comic nimbleness as well as excellent vocal and dramatic excellence were Mahesh Gupta, who was commanding as Nicely-Nicely Johnson in “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” and Jacob Shilling as sidekick Benny Southstreet. These two are going places as well.
Making her presence known in a small role, and stealing scenes in the process, was Emily Chrzanowski who played Sarah Brown’s grandmother and mission helper Arvida (changed to a female character for this production). Though diminutive in stature, Chrzanowski surprised with a powerhouse voice when her character sang the lilting “More I Cannot Wish You” to her love struck granddaughter Sarah.
Once a Broadway gypsy, Beck’s professional experience and expertise showed in the spectacular choreography she created and was precisely executed by the fledgling performers. The show’s production numbers were astonishing for their synchronized tightness. There was no shortage of dancers demonstrating exceptional technique and musicality as they dazzled as they danced to songs that included “Bushel and a Peck,” “Take Back Your Mink,” “Lucky Be a Lady” and “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat.”
Fortunately for these students, music director and Trevor Fanning, who also conducted the show’s capable orchestra, helped them turn in professional-quality vocal performances with gorgeous harmonies that more than did justice to Loesser’s spirited score.
Contributing to the show’s glossy patina were its superior production elements, contributed by the Civic’s creative team consisting of scenic and lighting designer Ryan Koharchik, sound designer Michael J. Lasley, costume designer Adrienne Conces and properties designer Jennifer D. Sutton.
In her director’s notes in the program, Beck made mention of how Civic’s YAP program is “designed to teach and mold the teenager into approaching their arts as professionals.” She also describes the students as “bright, thirsty, supportive, diligent and tireless.” Based on what I observed, not only is YAP fulfilling its mission, it is also providing a nurturing incubator for its participants to express all the positive qualities she referenced, resulting in the true artistry and discipline they expressed on stage.
Considering the work and effort invested in the production by its top-notch cast and crew, it is a shame the run isn’t longer, but if you are fortunate to read this in time, you must visit thecenterfortheperformingarts.org to purchase tickets to “Guys and Dolls” which plays tonight at 7:00 p.m. and tomorrow at 2:00 p.m.