Minnesota is known as a land of obligatory standing ovations but, even here, a mid-show standing ovation is rare. But there was one last week on opening night of the Guthrie’s fantabulous “Guys and Dolls.”
Widely known as “the perfect musical,” it doesn’t exactly need to be improved upon: Every single Frank Loesser song is a witty gem. Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling’s book is hysterical, with a dusting of sweetness. Done right, the show moves like a cannonball, building and building to the revival meeting showstopper, “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” the most blissful five minutes in all of musical theater (it earned that mid-show standing O). And then the slim plot wraps up quickly with a few more character-rich songs. The (Happy) End.
You’ve probably seen a couple of high school productions of the show about gangsters and missionaries in New York’s Times Square of the 1950s, or maybe the not-great movie version with Marlon Brando “singing,” and thought, “Yeah, I like that show,” but the lavish Guthrie production is designed to make sure you love it. And the love starts with Miss Adelaide, the quirkily endearing showgirl who is running thin on patience after a 14-year engagement to low-rent gambling empresario Nathan Detroit.
“Adelaide’s Lament,” in which she describes the cold-like symptoms of the lovelorn, is always a comic highlight of “Guys and Dolls,” and Kirsten Wyatt does that song beautifully; but the thing is: It’s not even the best part of her inventive performance. Hers is one of those characterizations that is so deep and heartfelt that everything she does on stage feels right. She literally gets laughs (and then tears) from the way she breathes.
Aside from a too-busy overture and few male dancers who are not, strictly speaking, dancers, just about everything in this “Guys and Dolls” sings. Director Kent Gash helped the huge cast find jokes even Loesser, Burrows and Swerling didn’t know were there and, without monkeying with “perfection,” the creative team found fresh ways to shine up this 69-year-old show. Choreographer Dell Howlett announces his intention to innovate when he incorporates stepping in one of the first dance numbers, “The Oldest Established.” He also mixes “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” gestures into “Take Back Your Mink” and uses movement to accentuate the gospel origins of “Sit Down.”
Kara Harmon’s colorful costumes just keep coming (there can’t be a bolt of satin left in the Twin Cities). Darryl Ivey’s orchestrations take a new look at classic songs, exploiting the mournful melody of “My Time of Day” and creating a heartfelt a cappella intro for “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” the song in which gambler/rake Sky Masterson and spunky missionary Sarah Brown realize they’re hooked long after the rest of us have figured it out.
Incidentally, if there’s one drag on a production of “G and D,” it’s often Brown, who can seem like a prim drip, but Olivia Hernandez’s Brown is a charmer who’s presented as easily the most together person on stage. I’d also single out Justin Keyes’ peripatetic Nicely-Nicely Johnson, but the whole ensemble is terrific. My main advice? Wear comfortable shoes. You’re gonna be standing in them.