If you don't know the show, the plot is basically summed up by the dated stereotype that men don't want to get married and women have to trick them into it (and then change them). More specifically, Guys and Dolls centers around the underground gambling business in NYC and a mission trying to save the sinners. Nathan Detroit runs the big craps game in town and is always looking for a place to hold it, while trying to hide it from Adelaide, Hot Box dancer and his fiance of 14 years. To get the money to secure a location for the game, Nathan bets big-time gambler Sky Masterson that he cannot convince pious mission worker Sarah to go to Havana with him. Sky wins the bet, but it's not quite that simple. To win Sarah's heart, he bets against the guys' souls to get them to come to a meeting and save the mission. And everyone lives happily ever after.*
|Sky (Jeremiah James) and Sarah (Olivia Hernandez)|
in Havana (photo by T. Charles Erickson)
Another positive change is the performance of the song "Take Back Your Mink," which is basically about a man who gives a woman gifts in exchange for sex, and when it comes time to collect, she protests and gives him back the mink, the dress, the pearls, etc., resulting in a strip-tease. But in this version, there are notably no men on stage. The women are not performing for the men's pleasure, they're making a statement that they don't need all these fancy gifts or the men who gifted them. It becomes an empowering female friendship sort of song, again flipping the narrative from the original.
Lastly, there are a couple of casting choices that fly in the face of the gender stereotypes. Ensemble member Mark Andrew Garner plays both a guy AND a doll - he's a gambler and a hot box dancer (a fact I didn't realize until curtain call, so convincing is he in both roles). Additionally, the role of tough Chicago gambler Big Jule is played the fabulous local actor Karen Wiese-Thompson in her Guthrie debut, a role typically played by a man, and here played as a man, but with a twist. Both of these casting choices help to blur the line of the show's strict gender stereotypes.
|Adelaide (Kirsten Wyatt) and Nathan (Rodney Gardiner)|
(photo by T. Charles Erickson)
|"Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat"|
(photo by T. Charles Erickson)
The Guthrie's thrust stage is dominated by a looming two-dimensional skyline of NYC, with rolling set pieces representing a newsstand, telephone booth, and the framework of the Save-A-Soul Mission. Lighting and costume design fill the world with color; the costumes are, as per usual at the Guthrie, luscious and impeccable. (Scenic design by Jason Sherwood, lighting design by Dawn Chiang, and costume design by Kara Harmon.)
There are a lot of things to love about this production of Guys and Dolls, it's nearly flawless. In fact, the only flaw is the choice to produce it in the first place. I expect more from one of the country's leading regional theaters than to produce a dated piece that every high school and community theater has done, even if it is the best possible production of that piece. I look forward to next summer's musical Cabaret, which, while still a commonly produced crowd-pleaser, at least has substance and relevance to today - the terrifying rise of Nazism.
At this year's Tony Awards, Hadestown became the first best musical winner written and directed by women. Ever. In 2019 - way overdue. It's time to create some new classics written by some new voices, and I have no doubt that Hadestown will become a classic - it's based on Greek mythology, what's more classic than that?! My greatest wish for the Guthrie summer musical in the future is a world premiere of a new original musical that will become a new classic.
If you're looking for a new original musical that's never been done before, I recommend Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant at Park Square Theatre. For a rarely done all-female musical, check out Theatre Elision's Ruthless! in their brand new performance space in Crystal. And for more on the way women are portrayed in musical theater, I refer you to my favorite Minnesota Fringe Festival show from last year - Not Fair, My Lady!
*Plot summary borrowed from what I've written about the show in the past.