PlayMakers’ Summer Youth Conservatory debuted “Guys and Dolls” last week at the Paul Green Theatre, with shows running through July 25. Directed by PlayMakers Associate Artistic Director Jeffrey Meanza and choreographed by Matthew Steffens, the “Musical Fable of Broadway” features a large cast comprised of high-school aged actors from around the Triangle.
It’s a good thing, too, that the cast is large — based in the 1930s in New York City and telling the tale of traveling craps promoter Nathan Detroit (Ethan Fox), who gambles his 14-year engagement to showgirl Miss Adelaide (Ainsley Seiger), his civil freedom and tens of thousands of dollars in addition to petty cash in dice games, “Guys and Dolls” is as grand of a show as any. But simply making New York feel grand is nothing extraordinary; “Guys and Dolls” goes above and beyond by making New York truly feel alive.
The show begins all at once, with the dull mumblings of the city quickly growing to a shout as subway doors give way to city-folk hustling across the stage, painted in the likeness of a New York subway map. A giant “Roxy” marquee sign dazzles in fluorescence directly next to the band, stationed above the action, as they set the tempo of the show at just shy of a sprint. Men rush past the newspaper stand in coats and ties on their way to work; a sandwich board-clad man foretells the end of days; volunteers for the mission pass out pamphlets to audience members who find themselves pleasantly surprised with their cameo.
Meanza is keen to place his actors in the crowd repeatedly over the course of the play. When the showgirls are dancing, Miss Adelaide prances gleefully into the crowd on more than one occasion; in one ensemble scene, a drunkard clinching a brown bag offers his drink to an amused onlooker in the audience. This breaking down of the fourth wall, paired with soaring musical numbers, energetic choreography and an impressive retracting stage inject the play with life in every scene.
Yet for all the show’s grandeur, the smallest inclusions, performances and decisions by the actors make the show. After standout musical number “Adelaide’s Lament” ends in tears, a single tissue accidentally remained onstage after the showgirl and her vanity mirror descended via an opening in the mechanized stage; instead of hurriedly kicking the tissue offstage, in the following scene, a passing man sneezed, casually picked up the tissue, and went about his day. In a high stakes craps game, players not involved in the game at hand cock their heads to track the fateful roll before continuing with their choreography. When mission girl Sarah Brown (Mya Ison) drunkenly kisses high roller Sky Masterson (Gideon Chickos) in Havana, the typically devout Brown’s inexperience with inebriation is conveyed so subtly through her nervous excitement and uncertainty.
These are not aspects of a show that can be included in the script, but they are what give a show the enviable quality of feeling natural, intimate and human. The actors featured in “Guys and Dolls” are rookies compared to the thespians that typically take the stage at PlayMakers, but they refuse to act their age. Certainly, at times the choreography fell slightly out of sync, notes didn’t quite hit and lines got caught up in an actor’s mouth. But in every instance, the young actors recovered quickly and smoothly.
In addition to their natural theatrical sensibilities, the actors in “Guys and Dolls” have sheer talent to spare. Ison, who spent basically all of her time on stage stealing the show, describes how she expects to fall in love as she soars across “I’ll Know,” hitting notes that should not be possible for a sophomore in high school. “A Bushel and a Peck” brings the crowd into Miss Adelaide and her showgirls’ hotbox, and their high-energy performance is among the most fun in the show. Performed in the mission itself and telling the story of a dream from God, “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” shook the theater as Detroit and his crew of gamblers rambunctiously sang and danced amongst the mission volunteers.
The show’s choreography is consistently top-notch, and acutely spatially aware. It would be very easy for the massive stage and glamorous hanging lights to swallow up the actors, but Steffens spreads his dancers across New York and is sure to keep them busy. As if the sheer scale of the dance numbers didn’t suffice, more than a few acrobatic maneuvers elicited excited gasps from the crowd.
PlayMakers’ “Guys and Dolls” exists in an odd place. The show is set in the 1930s, premiered on Broadway in 1950 and is being performed in 2015 by actors born in the 1990s. And yet, there isn’t a single moment in the play’s two acts that doesn’t feel mature, robust and modern. From the costumes and magnificent stage to the individual performances and theater-smarts of the actors, “Guys and Dolls” is a near-perfect success.
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