I wasn’t sure quite what to expect when I attended Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s season opener, Guys and Dolls. How would WBTT puts its own mark on the Frank Loesser hit, which first bowed in 1950 and has seen so many productions since then?
Would it feature an all-black cast, as did a 1976 Broadway revival set in Harlem and tweaking the famous score with a flavor of Motown? Would it stick more closely to the original? Or would the company find a third path?
Turns out, under the direction of Jim Weaver, this Guys and Dolls mixes it up a bit. Yes, the location of the mythical part of New York where the gamblers and dolls live has been moved from Broadway to Harlem, but other than the street scene backdrop of Donna and Mark Buckalter’s set design, you wouldn’t necessarily know it. The music, under the direction of Christopher Jordan, doesn’t lean any more heavily than usual on jazz or blues or soul (other than the naturally gospel-inflected “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat”). There’s no real sense of period here, either; the Damon Runyon stories from which Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows derived the show’s book were set in the 1920s and 1930s, and other productions have made it feel post World War II. Here, it’s pretty much timeless.
And as for the cast, it’s something of a rainbow of colors and backgrounds, and that works just fine without raising any questions of how these people all came to be in the same place and storyline. Some speakers fare better than others at delivering the style of patter that will forever be known as Runyonesque, but everyone onstage has talent that shows up in ensemble, solo and duet numbers.
Aside from the costumes by Darci Collins, which outfit the males suitably from fedoras to footwear and provide some sex appeal for most of the females, this Guys and Dolls is a pretty minimalist production. Props and visual projections whisk us from a New York City mission to Havana, Cuba, with little ado; and the cast is somewhat smaller than usually seen for this show. It doesn’t feel like gambler Sky Masterson (Brian L. Boyd) has quite mustered the promised dozen sinners for Sister Sarah (Kirstin Angelina Henry) toward the evening’s climax, and I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more gamblers at work on “Crapshooters Dance” and “Luck Be a Lady Tonight.”
That said, both numbers are crisply and energetically performed, with director-choreographer Weaver’s work standing out, as it also does on “Havana” and the rousing “Boat” number. And there’s plenty of vocal talent on tap here, too. Frequent WBTT performer Boyd has a good handle on Sky and duets nicely with newcomer Henry on their love songs, and Henry in turn suggests from the very get-go that there’s much more to Sarah than her religious fervor.
Another relative newcomer here, Warren G. Nolan, scores as Nathan Detroit, and he and Marta McKinnon as the nasally challenged Miss Adelaide pair to good comic effect. McKinnon gets laughs whenever she opens her mouth, with her high-pitched bimbo-ish delivery; I might have been the only one in the audience who occasionally tired of it, especially since it reminded me of her portrayal of Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors some seasons ago. Stalwart Leon S. Pitts is perfectly cast as Nicely Nicely, and WBTT newbie Lee Hollis Bussie doesn’t miss a comic beat as fellow Detroit comrade in crime Benny Southstreet.
Overall, I found this production entertaining, but wonder if it could have wagered more creatively to make it truly stand out. Guys and Dolls continues through Nov. 20; for tickets, call (941) 366-1505 or visit westcoastblacktheatre.org.