In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Bob Hirschi plays one of the gamblers in the Off the Wall Theatre production of "Guys and Dolls." Karl Miller is in the background.

"Guys and Dolls" survives and thrives

"Guys and Dolls" is the best cartoon in theater.

As Off the Wall Theatre producer-director Dale Gutzman noted in pre-curtain comments before his company's opening night performance of the musical, Frank Loesser wrote the show's score for a different book. When the project fell through, he persuaded Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling to create a new story around his existing songs.

That inevitably results in a plot and characters even more underdeveloped than the usual superficiality of musical books. "Mamma Mia" is the contemporary example of the phenomenon. The process produces a cartoon.

This is not necessarily bad. Not every musical has to be written by Stephen Sondheim, and if the cartoon is good enough, the style has some advantages. It is more forgiving of inconsistent casts and small production budgets.

Characters don't have to be as precisely defined. Singing voices need not be as strong. A bit of scenic shabbiness can even enhance the show.

"Guys and Dolls" has proven to be the epitome of this in the 60 years since it first opened on Broadway, and Off the Wall, 127 E. Wells St., is exploiting its charm and generosity to the max. The production opened last week.

First, a few words about the musical. Loesser's score and lyrics are as good as any written for the stage. Composed before anyone had heard the term rock 'n' roll, his songs leap across the gap between 1950 and 2010 with timeless melodic hooks.

It wasn't an accident that Don Henley recorded "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" from "Guys and Dolls" in the '90s for a movie score.

Burrows' and Swerling's book of wise-cracking petty hoods was adapted from the short stories of Damon Runyan, and it remains comically fresh. The streets of midtown Manhattan are very different today, but these 1930s wise guys are still quick with the cute quip.

Producer-director Gutzman injected some swagger and moxie into the Off the Wall production, and they give the show spark and energy. Matt Zembrowski may be the first performer to simultaneously provide piano accompaniment and play Nicely Nicely Johnson, one of the Runyanesque gamblers.

The piano moves around Off the Wall's small stage and Zembrowski pulls off the unusual double duty with amiable affability and amazing aplomb. The production also uses recorded music from an instrumental jazz CD of "Guys and Dolls" during scene changes.

Acting takes precedence over singing in this cast. Parker Cristan and Sharon Rise find some depth in Sky Masterson and Sarah Brown, and they display believable chemistry and vulnerability. That is unusual.

Unfortunately, the mutual attraction is not evident with the musical's other romantic couple, Nathan Detroit (Karl Miller) and Miss Adelaide (Kristin Pagenkopf). However, Pagenkopf is terrific on her own.

She is the production's best singer, and she absolutely nails her character's Betty Boop in Brooklyn accent and attitude.

Another Ten Chimneys

Say you are going to Ten Chimneys, and everyone understands that to mean you are headed out to the Waukesha County estate of legendary actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Soon it could mean you are going to a play.

Prolific playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, whose work has often been produced here, has written a drama titled "Ten Chimneys" that is being given its world premiere by the Arizona Theatre Company in Phoenix and Tucson. Hatcher uses the Lunts and their estate as the setting for a fictitious romantic triangle that leads to intrigue and suicide in Genesee Depot.

The "Ten Chimneys" cast, which includes Wisconsin actors Linda Stephens and Marcus Truschinski, has just finished a week of rehearsing at Ten Chimneys. It's uncommon for a theater company to travel 1,700 miles to rehearse, but Arizona Theatre Company artistic director David Ira Goldstein sees great value for this particular play.

"In a very real way, this rare opportunity to rehearse in the rooms where the play takes place could not be more fitting," he said in a statement.

"Ten Chimneys" will be staged in Arizona Jan. 22 to March 6. Don't be surprised if a Wisconsin production follows in a future season.


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