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A Natural

by B.A. Nilsson on June 23, 2011

Guys and Dolls
Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, adapted from stories by Damon Runyon, choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, Directed by John Rando
Barrington Stage Company, Through July 16

Photo by Kevin Sprague

It’s a fully formed but imaginary universe that book writer Abe Burrows crafted when he adapted two Damon Runyon stories (and several ancillary characters) into one of the most successful musicals of 1950. Runyon’s genius was in crafting a world of touts and thieves who present themselves in a flowery language, comically echoing the patrician speech these underworld types seek to emulate. Translated to stage in Guys and Dolls, the easy slang and quick comic jabs of composer Frank Loesser’s lyrics and street-smart tunes enhance that world, reaching an apotheosis in the celebrated “Adelaide’s Lament,” in which a nightclub floozy tries to rationalize her physical ills by blaming them on her frustrating fiancé.

Sixty years after its creation, there remains a timelessness about the piece. If the women are caricatures of pre-lib unenlightenment, well, the men aren’t any great shakes, either. Sarah Brown grew up a Salvation Army brat, and preaches the cause to the Main Stem reprobates. On the hook for a quick G, craps entrepreneur Nathan Detroit bets high-roller Sky Masterson that he can’t take Sarah to dinner.

This golden-age musical has Big Show written all over it, but the Barrington Stage Company production now playing in Pittsfield fits it nicely onto a modest-sized stage sporting Alexander Dodge’s stylized urban background.

“Runyonland,” the opening dance sequence, sets the scope, with a dozen ensemble members enacting the mix of denizens and tourists working the street courtesy of choreographer Joshua Bergasse.

Michael Thomas Holmes is effortlessly believable as Nathan Detroit, an everyman who happens to be a devoted gambler, played with just enough Jackie Gleason to remind us how high the stakes are for Detroit to keep his crap game going. Up against an absurd challenge by out-of-towner Big Jule (a delightfully menacing Michael Nichols) to bet on a roll of blank dice (“I remember where the spots are!”), Detroit’s stutters and spasms actually made the scene as believable as it was funny.

He’s been putting off fiancée Adelaide (Leslie Kritzer) for 14 years, which leads to the aforementioned “Lament,” a showstopper that Kritzer delivered with perfection, her voice and manner nicely suited to the character. Her duet with Detroit, “Sue Me,” was another high point.

Morgan James looks lovely and innocent as Sister Sarah in her red soul-saving uniform, but there’s something percolating underneath, something that erupts after a few Bacardis into

“If I Were a Bell.” What a voice! By the time she joins Adelaide in the end-of-the-show duet “Marry the Man Today” (“Give him your hand today/And save the fist for after”), we believe she just might be able to work some magic on the no-account Sky.

Masterson is a man of charisma with more than a hint of menace. Matthew Risch brought charisma and then some to the part, but the menace was lacking. Still, he communicated a complicated mix of feelings in “Luck Be a Lady,” when he’s about to roll the crapshoot of his life.

That number, and its predecessor, “The Crapshooter’s Dance,” put the male ensemble to the test with specialty acrobatics that looked great but didn’t seem to belong in the setting. Bergasse succumbed too often to the current kitchen-sink style of choreography, in which the spectacle becomes everything at the expense of the story that the number was designed to tell.

This was especially apparent in the nightclub routine “A Bushel and a Peck,” in which the ensemble (four chorines and Adelaide) carried bushels of phallic vegetables. Adding dick jokes to a 1950 musical only shows an inability to trust the material—there was even an unnecessary veer into scatology at the end of the show.

Then again, director John Rando made a name with Urinetown. His challenge was to move a busy cast around a small stage, and he met it well, avoiding the clutter that can mar less-skilled productions. At times the stage seemed too bare, however, and I wonder if a downstage focal point here or there mightn’t have helped also focus the ensemble scenes.

Darren Cohen led a small, tight, virtuoso ensemble in the theater’s almost unseen pit. But you certainly could hear them, as the amplification was cranked much too high for a theater of that size. Amplification is such a scourge anyway that I would like to see a house like this practice it with immense discretion, if it has to be practiced at all.

But the wonderful aspects of this show far outweigh the minuses. Here’s a great opportunity to see one of the classics, presented with a joy and vivaciousness perfect for summer entertainment.