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Actor Clayton Corzatte has been performing professionally since 1951 -- a 60-year run in which he has been nominated for a Tony, won an Obie and acted opposite Katharine Hepburn. Corzatte, who was part of the first company of the Guthrie Theater in 1963, has no plans to slow down.
"In the theater, one rarely retires," Corzatte, 84, said by phone last week from Seattle, where he has lived for 43 years. "People retire you by not hiring you anymore. But as long as they keep giving me work, I'll keep showing up."
Corzatte, who keeps his instrument in tune by doing daily vocal and other exercises, is cast as Arvide Abernathy, grandfather of the female lead in "Guys and Dolls." He is part of an acting ensemble of mostly Seattle-based performers in a co-production that recently closed at the 5th Avenue Theatre in the Emerald City and opens today at the Ordway Center in St. Paul.
The cast includes Todd Buonopane (a regular on "30 Rock") as roly-poly principal Nicely-Nicely Johnson. Director Peter Rothstein and costume designer Kate Sutton-Johnson are the sum of the Twin Cities talent associated with the production. Rothstein had a "wonderful surprise" seeing Corzatte in the audition room.
"He read really nicely and when he opened his mouth to sing, what came out was this sweet, sweet voice," he said.
The Frank Loesser musical is a staple of the American stage, not simply because it is well crafted, but also because of its themes, said Rothstein.
Based on Damon Runyon's stories, "Guys and Dolls" revolves around gangsters and strippers -- colorful characters that make the show sound like a forerunner to gangsta rap.
"Except that this is a very stylized musical not based at all in reality," said Rothstein. "The acting style in Rodgers & Hammerstein, for example, is set in romanticism. Runyon is really sophisticated, turning phrases in a whole world of comedy and irony that he creates. Each of the characters is avoiding commitment."
The last Broadway revival of "Guys and Dolls" was a failure. Critics faulted it for not having a uniform style, something that Rothstein was mindful of. But style is not all.
"You have to play the humanity, to communicate the relationships, too," said the director, who has updated some of the show by, for example, getting new orchestrations and changing the pacing to fit today's tempo.
"A transition in the old days would involve the orchestra starting and one scene fading into another," he said. "But now we want it to be click-click, faster transitions."
Acting by chance
Corzatte may be a seasoned veteran, but he keeps up with the pace in "Guys and Dolls," a show he has never performed in before. He came to acting by chance. He had finished a two-year stint in the Navy in the 1940s, and had enrolled at the University of Alabama on the G.I. Bill, intending to become a radio announcer.
"I wanted to talk like that," he said. "Someone suggested I try out for a play, and I remember the first time I was onstage. There was nothing more electric and satisfying."
He had his first professional gig in 1951. He played Scotsman Lachlan MacLachlan in "The Hasty Heart," John Patrick's 1944 play that was made into a film in 1949 with Ronald Reagan as one of its stars.
In 1960, Corzatte was acting in a summer Shakespeare festival in Stratford, Conn., when he was summoned to a rehearsal space in Times Square to meet Hepburn. The two were to play separated twins in "Twelfth Night" at the festival.
"The space had a bar and mirrors on the walls," he said. "She took my hand and we stood opposite one of the mirrors, and she said, 'Well, we look somewhat alike, but you're the spitting image of my brother.'"
As they worked together, Corzatte did not want to be overly familiar with his co-star.
"I was chary about calling her Kate, so I made up a thing to call her -- Sister Viola Kate," he said. "She was the sweetest person to work with. There's a moment near the end of the play when finally the twins meet. I was standing there with her and I said, 'Is it all right if I kiss you here?' And she said, 'Clay, darling, this is your moment; you do whatever you want.'"
In the Guthrie's inaugural year, Corzatte acted in "Three Sisters," "Hamlet" and "The Miser," in which he played Hume Cronyn's son.
"What struck me, coming to the Guthrie, was how these stars, how a huge international figure like Tyrone Guthrie, was so uptight and nervous about opening," he said. "Of course, everything turned into a smashing success, so the nerves were worth it."
He was nominated for a Tony in 1967 for playing dissolute bachelor Charles Surface in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "The School for Scandal."
His turn in "Guys and Dolls," Corzatte said, helps him to continue to grow as a performer and to get a timeless message across.
"Arvide loves his granddaughter and is always taking care of her," he said. "She has strict ideas about who she might or might not love, and she believes she can never love a gambler. But what my character is saying is that if you love him, and he loves you, the job description is not very important."
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390