Shubert Theatre

Director Jerry Zaks has done to Guys and Dolls what Warren Beatty did to “Dick Tracy” in his movie version: taken material that already puts a fantasy spin on reality and removed it one step further. Zaks and set designer Tony Walton, whose bright pop-art backdrops dominate the show, have taken a color scheme and called it a concept. Their vulgarized, cartoon-style rendering of one of musical theater’s wittiest works is a terrible disappointment to this longtime Guys and Dolls fan–especially in the miscast, perfunctorily played touring version at the Shubert Theatre.

Yeah, yeah, I know: the daily reviewers raved after last week’s opening. Maybe the matinee the Sun-Times and Tribune writers saw was better than the fast-paced but mechanical and lifeless performance I attended that night. (Though at a $57 top ticket price, you should expect at least consistency.) But I can’t imagine that, even in top form, stolid light-opera veteran Richard Muenz would fit the role of sexy smoothie Sky Masterson, the gambler whose courtship of Salvation Army worker Sarah Brown drives the plot; nor can I conceive of a less engaging choice for the feisty Sarah than dowdy Patricia Ben Peterson, whose bell-like soprano invests the character’s lovely songs with all the thrill of a glee-club solo. And while Philip LeStrange and Beth McVey are physically credible (though too old and hard) as Nathan Detroit, promoter of “the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York,” and burlesque singer Miss Adelaide, Nathan’s fiancee of 14 years, they convey more pathos than pluck in their handling of this potentially hilarious comic couple.

But the real problem with this Guys and Dolls is its lack of atmosphere–always the strong suit in the 1950 musical fashioned from Damon Runyon’s stories by songwriter Frank Loesser, playwright Abe Burrows, and original director George S. Kaufman. (Burrows cited him as the script’s unofficial principal writer, while, according to Loesser’s daughter Susan in her book A Most Remarkable Fella, supposed coauthor Jo Swerling wrote “not a word” of the final draft.) The dozen or so stock and community versions I’ve seen made me laugh more than this cruise-ship-slick staging because of the wonderful comic business they created for the supporting and background characters, lovably loutish racketeers with names like Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Rusty Charlie, Big Jule, and Angie the Ox. These guys may not have much dialogue, but in any halfway decent production they’ll all have their own little tics and shticks to make the show’s mythic 1940s Times Square setting come to delightful life. Here the supporting characters have not a whit of individuality; they’re just models for costume designer William Ivey Long’s exaggerated pinstripes and zoot suits, reviving only when they execute Christopher Chadman’s stylish choreography.

By far the best thing in the show is the dancing; the second-act crap-game ballet that precedes “Luck Be a Lady,” for instance, has drive, energy, and a hint of the suspense that’s been drained everywhere else. The movement has rhythm, which is more than can be said for the dialogue: the actors’ rushed delivery almost obscures the wonderfully elaborate imagery and meter, inspired by Runyon’s highly stylized street-chivalric lingo. (For some of the flavor the musical’s creators sought to preserve, check out Runyon-based films like The Lemon Drop Kid and the heart-wrenching, hilarious Lady for a Day.) The orchestra, under Randy Booth’s brassy but bland musical direction, similarly buries the songs’ wit and variety under a dance-band sameness, so that a lilting Irish ballad like “More I Cannot Wish You,” a cool jazz recitative like “My Time of Day,” and a rowdy strip routine like “A Bushel and a Peck” all sound alike. (Well, at least that’s consistent.)

Even with all its flaws, this show should come as a breeze of fresh air to audiences more accustomed to the pretentious pomp of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s schlock operas; but this is a paradoxically garish and pale reflection of what Guys and Dolls can be. The best thing I can say about this show is that it’s better than the movie. But then, what isn’t?