Boy are we lucky to have the Masquerade Theatre in Houston! What a theatrical family of great talents continues to make this resident repertory theatre the gold standard for musical theatre in this town. And things seem to just keep getting better as the years go by, as evidenced by the current brilliant production of Frank Loesser’s ever-popular “Guys & Dolls.” The show, skillfully directed by Phillip Duggins, is now playing at Hobby Center’s Zilkha Hall. Loesser’s music and lyrics continue to delight after more than half a century, and the charmingly witty book by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling (based on a Damon Runyon story) is in very capable hands with this joyous edition.
With slight adaptation, the set design of David Higginbotham, (which also serves Masquerade’s current production of “Grease,”) works very well here. But this show exceeds the many charms of “Grease” on several levels. The ’50’s costume designs of Beth Hempen, whether for gambling mobsters in fedoras and double-breasted suits, or attractive show girls in skimpy attire, add eye-popping pleasure throughout. And the slick choreography of designers, Kristin Warren and Laura Gray, (bathed in fine lighting from Russell Freeman), is a major element of the show’s success, especially in the Fosse-esque and very “cool” dancing from the guys. The growing confidence and skill of these players, many of whom have worked together for a decade or more, is evident on every hand.
But let’s turn now to the main course, the music! Familiar to many from the MGM film version, we even have pleasant, though less familiar tunes here that were not present in the film. In most every case, the ensemble and a solo singing is right on target, and the fine pit orchestra, while it might need minor polishing of the brass, was smoothly conducted by Mike Medley (yes, that’s the musician’s real name!) The show grabs the audience right away with a well-staged and bustling city street scene as the gambling trio of Nicely-Nicely (Evan Tessier), Benny (Braden Hunt), and Rusty (Brad Scarborough), plan their racetrack bets and skillfully belt out the counterpoint challenges of “Fugue for Tinhorns,” which probably should have been titled “I’ve Got the Horse Right Here.” Then we meet the merry members of the mission church, led by Arvide (Sam Brown), and his niece, Sarah (Beth Hempen), as they seek city sinners singing the cheerful “Follow the Fold.” While they try to save the sinner’s souls, Lt. Brannigan (Michael Ross, with fine Irish brogue) tries to figure out how to arrest the gamblers as they light up the stage singing a lusty, solid, and clear-voiced ode to crap games with, “The Oldest Established.” It was becoming clear that sound engineer, Clay Ratcliff, would be deserving of a standing ovation. I have never heard better, more balanced sound from Masquerade. Every word spoken or sung was clearly audible and microphones worked well. (Though I hope Masquerade will eventually have access to the less obvious face microphones becoming available).
Just when it seemed no more fun could be possible, out pops talented Rebekah Dahl in the hilarious role of the squeaky-voiced, ditzy blonde, Adelaide. She is the perennial fiancée of the gamblers’ leader, Nathan Detroit (Luther Chakurian), to whom she has been engaged for 14 years! This had to be a dream role for Dahl who is well known for the comic flair that is well- displayed here, while her high-pitched voice could elegantly etch glass. Meanwhile, another budding romance features gambler, Sky Masterson (Ilich Guardiola), who begins to unexpectedly fall in love with Sarah as they duet tenderly in “I’ll Know.” Miss Hempen shows a fine voice with operatic qualities here, and Mr. Guardiola’s rich, deep voice has never sounded better.
Cut to the Hot Box nightclub where Dahl clearly has a ball as Adelaide leads the show girls in a delightful “Bushel And A Peck,” before showing her more poignant side with the amusing and touching “Adelaide’s Lament.” And for still further delight we have the show’s title song, done superbly by Hunt and Tessier. In a segment that seemed to lack a bit of clarity, Sky takes Sarah for a whirlwind night in Cuba, but this scene did feature some pleasant tropical dancing from the cast. Another minor matter of concern was the somewhat frantic delivery Miss Hempen gave to her rendition of the lovely, “If I Were A Bell.” It was just too busy with unnecessary movement to properly showcase her fine voice, and there was even a trace of that problem in her lovely duet of “I’ve Never Been,” with Guardiola in top vocal form as they closed Act I.
Act II treats included the sassy “Take Back Your Mink,” from Adelaide and the Hot Box Girls, and a tender “More I Cannot Wish You,” beautifully sung by Mr. Brown. Then there was fabulous staging for the gents’ dazzling “Luck Be A Lady” ballet, capped by another commanding vocal from Guardiola and the ensemble. Dahl maintains the breakneck pace as contrasting styles highlight her “Sue Me” duet with Chakurian. And before all ends happily with a title tune finale, there was a prayer meeting scene I will long remember for the unbeatable performance of “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat,” led by the amazingly talented Mr. Tessier. His role of Nicely-Nicely was immortalized on stage and screen by Stubby Kaye, and I’ll bet Stubby would have agreed with me. Nobody could have done it better!
“GUYS & DOLLS” will be performed in the Zilkha Hall of Houston’s Hobby Center at 8 p.m. on Thursday July 26TH and at 2 p.m. on Saturday July 28th. For tickets and information call Masquerade Theatre (713-861-7045) or the Hobby Center (713-315-2525).