Northwestern University’s Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center production of Guys and Dolls turns the quintessential musical comedy on its head for a modern twist.
Guys and Dolls, which features music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, first premiered on Broadway in 1950, winning the Tony for Best Musical, and has since been performed tens of thousands of times over. The show was also adapted to a movie in 1955, starring Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Frank Sinatra and Vivian Blaine.
Jeff Award winner and TimeLine Associate Artistic Director Nick Bowling envisioned the classic, male-dominated show about the pursuit of “dolls” as one that recognized the gender spectrum and had gender neutral casting.
“I had always loved the show, but when Northwestern approached me with this play, I thought, ‘Hey this is a show about the gender binary, and we’re in a time in our world right now where the binary is being questioned, the binary —we’re trying to break it down, we’re trying to find the spectrum of the binary,” Bowling said.
“Certainly, people who were not strictly binary lived in the late 40s and early 1950s, but maybe they weren’t as easily able to live a 'normal life,' so they had to live an underground life," Bowling said. "It seemed to me that it would be interesting to see that spectrum more readily accepted by the characters on stage, and then everybody can accept this idea of a less specific and broken binary.”
The show is set in New York City 1948, but is based off of Damon Runyon short stories, which celebrate the lively Broadway underworld of the 20s and 30s. “Runyonland” comes to life on a stage swinging wild with gangsters and gamblers from Havana to Manhattan. Distinctive stock characters —with hilariously stereotypical gangster names like Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Benny Southstreet and Rusty Charlie —bring Runyon’s slick slang to life.
The show kicks off with gambler Nathan Detroit, played by Communication sophomore Remy Laifer, who needs a $1,000 deposit for a place to run his illegal floating crap game. For the money, he makes a bet with the renowned gambler, Sky Masterson, played by Communication junior Clare McLaughlin: Sky must fly a “doll” of Nathan's choice to dinner in Havana, Cuba. However, that “doll” is the pious sergeant of Save-a-Soul-Mission, Sarah Brown, played by Communication sophomore Alexa Moster. To get his way with Brown, Masterson bets her that “a dozen genuine sinners” will attend her upcoming revival meeting.
Meanwhile, Detroit has his own lady problems with his fiance of 14 years, Adelaide, who suffers a chronic psychosomatic cold from Detroit’s lack of commitment. Classic musical comedy chaos ensues with a drunk Sarah announcing her love to Masterson and then rescinding it, a failed elopement, and various crapgame shenanigans.
Though there are many points in the show where women play traditionally male roles and men play traditionally female roles, it’s purposely left ambiguous whether some actors are playing roles of another gender. The most significant gender deviation is the portrayal of slick gangster Sky Masterson by Clare McLaughlin.
“It just felt so right...That then makes Sarah, all of a sudden, not just question whether she can go off with this gambler type, but it makes her begin to question her sexuality and her very specific, old-fashioned life,” Bowling said.
Even those who have never seen the show may have heard some of its classic songs. These include “Luck be a Lady,” an upbeat jazz song which was popularized by Frank Sinatra, or “A Bushel and a Peck,” which in this show is a hilarious and slightly grotesque burlesque number with backup dancers as chickens.
“It’s really satisfying to bring an older piece, that some people consider stagnant--especially musically, to life. I think that the compositions in the show are phenomenal, and I think it’s so much fun to get those same chills you get from hearing the show but with a new twist.” said Communication sophomore Jacob Leaf, who plays Benny Southstreet.
A highlight of the show is the Broadway classic, “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat,” in which gambler Nicely-Nicely Johnson, played by Communication senior Gabriella Green, invents a dream about being saved from hell in order to bring together the members of the prayer meeting. This 11 ‘o'clock number puts these twelve legitimate sinners into a gospel revival frenzy.
“I hope audiences take away a new way of seeing love in this show. All the characters in this show are in love with someone, and it really shows you that anybody can be in love, no matter what the time period it is, and that’s why the show’s special for me,” said Bienen junior, Benjamin Roberts, who plays Rusty Charlie.
Guys and Dolls runs from Friday, Feb. 15 to Sunday, March 3 at Ethel M. Barber Theater, 30 Arts Circle Drive. Visit https://wirtz.northwestern.edu/events/event/guys-and-dolls/ to purchase tickets.