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Theater Review: Guys and Dolls

The Maui Onstage production of “Guys and Dolls” gets off to a strong start and never wavers. The song score begins with “Fugue for Tinhorns,” the rousing opener that fully immerses the audience into a dreamland of New York, as a town overrun with gangsters, gamblers, entertainers and misfits. Performed with gusto by Robert Mills, Craig Bode and Stephen Webb, the number (beginning with “I got the horse right here, the name is Paul Revere…”) sets the bar high and gives an early indication of how solid the show is overall.

The last time I saw “Guys and Dolls” was in the 1990’s, when it was performed at The Historic Iao Theater. I remember finding that production funny and exciting, as the actors pulled off the madcap energy and vocal demands of the classic musical comedy. In 2016, seeing this Adrienne Maitland-directed production in the same theater, I can honestly say the magic is back.

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Based on the writings of Damon Runyon, the setting is New York of the 1950’s. Gambler Nathan Detroit (played by Francis Taua) is struggling to calm the nerves of his long suffering fiancée, Miss Adelaide (played by Brett Marynn Wulfson). The arrival of a big time gambler/crook, Big Jule (Joseph Schumacher) shakes things up, as does the presence of the Save-a-Soul mission, led by an earnest Sarah Brown (played by Leighanna Locke).  Everything gets thrown for a loop with the appearance of a fearless gambler named Sky Masterson (David Tuttle, in a strong Maui theater debut).

How good is Taua as Nathan Detriot? With his razor sharp comic timing, winning bluster and potent vocalization, Taua reminded me of no less than Jackie Gleason in his prime. Robert Wills is terrific as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, giving a total embodiment of the character. The only actor who could have possibly played the role better is Stubby Kaye.

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Locke gives a lovely performance and has a gorgeous, operatic singing voice. Wulfson’s take on Adelaide is an eye-opener; I’ve always seen the character portrayed as a fool and a petty opportunist but Wulfson manages the feat of making her both sympathetic and adorable. Maui community theater MVP Dale Button invests heart to the exposition-heavy role of Abernathy- his “More Than I Can Give You’ is a quiet, lovely second act highlight.

Rueben Carrion gives a stylish and very funny turn as Harry the Horse (keep an eye on Carrion during the Cuba sequence, where he cuts loose in a different role). Stephen Webb is great as Benny Southstreet and Cindy Reeves gives a nice turn as the mission’s leader.

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The actors wisely don’t push the New Yawk accents. No one goes over the top, as this could play like a cartoon and instead remains a great farce with some terrific music. The decision to have a dog on stage during a few crowd scenes was risky but totally pays off. Everyone in the cast is so good, they manage not to get upstaged by an adorable canine.

As directed and choreographed by Maitland, the dancing and pacing has a constant snap. The show has been backed by fine orchestration, led by musical director Stephen Haines. The numbers with the Hot Box Dancer are hilarious and witty, as the audience witnesses a goofy nightclub act and a show-within-the-show.

There’s a stunning change of location near the end of act one: when the setting switches to Cuba, revolving sets, a vibrant color palette and an explosion of energy truly invigorates the production.

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Two second act numbers, “Luck Be a Lady” and “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” are extraordinary; in the former, you can see the actors working up a sweat and giving the sequence everything they’ve got. In the latter, Wills takes charge and scorches the stage. Those songs have always been crowd pleasers and their presentation here are suitably thrilling.

The only drawback is the inclusion of Runyon, periodically depicted sitting in his brownstone apartment, typing away. We see Scott Smith playing the writer, while Runyon’s words are projected on a screen at the other side of the stage. It’s an ambitious, loving tribute to Runyon but a distraction nevertheless.

This is a top notch production of one of Broadway’s greatest musicals. The best productions showcase actors bringing out the joy in their performance. It happens a lot during this show.

Guys and Dolls runs at The Historic Iao Theater from March 4th-20th. Tickets are available by calling 808.242.6969 or at www.mauionstage.com.

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About Barry Wurst II

Barry Wurst II
Barry Wurst II is a senior editor & film critic at MAUIWatch. He wrote film reviews for a local Maui publication and taught film classes at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs (UCCS). Wurst also co-hosted podcasts for Screengeeks.com and has been published in Bright Lights Film Journal and in other film-related websites. He is currently featured in the new MAUIWatch Podcast- The NERDWatch.

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