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Sunday, June 23, 2024

Howard County Summer Theatre’s ‘Guys and Dolls’ is a Sure Bet

Danny Bertaux as Sky Masterson and Company
In 1975 the Howard County Summer Theatre launched its long and distinguished run with the iconic musical Guys and Dolls. The community theatre annually produces a classic Broadway musical to enthrall audiences during the warm summers. Now, nearly 50 years later, HCST has brought back the five-time Tony Award winner Guys and Dolls that is currently gracing the stage at Marriotts Ridge High School in Marriottsville, Maryland.

I will give 8 to 5 odds that members of the original cast, which undoubtedly was a good one, do not appear in the new iteration. But I can say definitively, this mostly youthful company can rival anyone in talent, energy and enthusiasm.

The beauty of superior musicals is that they are timeless in that they are as captivating and entertaining today as they were in say, 1950, when the original production opened on Broadway. The success of Guys and Dolls on Broadway led to well-received revivals. In 1955 the film with the same title was released starring Marlon Brando Jean Simmons, Vivian Blaine and Frank Sinatra.

The current production of Guys and Dolls restores the nostalgia of 1950 New York while delivering a bravura musical extravaganza under the impeccable direction of Tom Sankey, who has been helming HCST productions for 40 years. Also standing out are Kassi Serafini’s meticulous choreography, the solid orchestra direction of Kevin George and the stellar musicians, as well as the absolutely fabulous costumes designed by long-time HCST stalwart Laural Seivold Clark.

Then there is the wonderfully creative set design by Douglas Thomas and lighting design by Em Muryhina.  In all, an exceptional, perfectly cast company and technical crew carry out the vision of the director in a way that will render your hands raw from all the applause-worthy moments.

Contributing to this effort is the show’s superlative material.  With music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, it is no wonder Guys and Dolls captured so many awards in both its original rollout and the subsequent revivals.

"...a bravura musical extravaganza under the impeccable direction of Tom Sankey..."

Needless to say, the music catalogue, which is outstanding and varied from top to bottom, plus the clever book, places Guys and Dolls in the same category of brilliance as the Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, and Jerry Herman musical classics.  As in the case of those shows, Guys and Dolls withstands the test of time and is loved by folks of all ages.

The music is delightfully entwined in the zany plot involving gambler Nathan Detroit (Todd Hochkeppel), who needs $1,000 for a venue to stage a crap game—“The Oldest Established Floating Crap Game”—with all the big-time gamblers in town, whom he cannot disappoint for the sake of his own reputation, and yes, safety.  He also has been avoiding marriage as he has been the fiancé of Miss Adelaide (Tori Farnsworth), a lovely blond nightclub singer, for 14 years and counting. Notably, Ms. Farnsworth is a late replacement for Marloe Lippert on the day the show was reviewed and turned in a sturdy performance; she is a real trouper.

There is Sarah Brown (Heather Moe) who is under pressure to save the souls of sinners in the mission she runs.  Any thoughts she may harbor of romance take a back seat to her mission. 

Nathan who is desperate to come up with the grand in which neither he nor his employees Nicely-Nicely Johnson (James Toler) and Benny Southstreet (Justin Moe) have or the credit to rent space at the Biltmore garage. This venue was selected to avoid the watchful eye of policeman Lt. Brannigan (David Zotian) who is relentless in his quest to stop the gamblers.

As a last-ditch effort to raise the money, Nathan places a $1,000 bet with a more successful gambler Sky Masterson (Danny Bertaux) that he will not be able to convince Sarah—so committed to saving souls at the sacrifice of her personal life—to go with him to Havana.  He accepts the bet, and she is lured to Havana based on Sky’s promise to deliver 12 sinners to her mission. The rest of the hilarious tale will be up to the audience to enjoy.

Danny Bertaux as Sky Masterson and Heather Moe as Sarah Brown

As pleasing and endearing the book is, it’s the music that makes the show a classic.  Songs like “A Bushel and a Peck,” “Guys and Dolls,” “If I Were a Bell,”  “Luck Be a Lady,” and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” are famous.  But all the numbers in Guys and Dolls are gems.

“Luck Be a Lady” and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” are fantastic production numbers with Ms. Serafini’s choreography and the talented dancers all in synch providing unforgettable “wow” moments.

The cast did these great songs justice with outstanding vocals throughout.  As Miss Adelaide, Tori Farnsworth performs “A Bushel and a Peck” and “Adelaide’s Lament” in the way Frank Loesser had imagined.  The beautiful mezzo-soprano vocals of Heather Moe as Sarah are on display when she performs “If I Were a Bell” and in the bouncy duet with Ms. Farnsworth in “Marry the Man Today.”  

Danny Bertaux as the commanding Sky Masterson brings home the iconic number “Luck Be a Lady” with his strong tenor voice.  He also delivers “My Time of Day” in style. His onstage chemistry with Ms. Moe is strong as he seeks to woo Sarah. The effort to do so is whiplash-producing in its multiple changes in direction.

Poor schnook Nathan Detroit is played exceptionally and with flair by Todd Hochkeppel. A regular laugh machine, he skillfully executes all the comedic scenes in which he is featured, and his performance in the duet with Ms. Farnsworth “Sue Me” is spot on.

Then there is James Toler as Nicely-Nicely Johnson.  Mr. Toler demonstrates his comedic props in several scenes with well-timed lines, facial expressions and body language.  Vocally, he is off the charts.  He performs well in several numbers including “Fugue for Tinhorns,” “Oldest Established,” and “Guys and Dolls” with other cast members.

However, his lead in “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” represents the show-stopper that every great musical must have.  Mr. Toler and the rest of the company at the Save-a-Soul Mission sing the ultimate up-tempo number with gusto while the precise choreography is amazing. 

So spectacular was this performance on the day this show was reviewed, that the raucous ovation was extended well beyond the norm. It was akin to a baseball player hitting a home run and the crowd’s cheers continue so long in quest of a curtain call from the batter.  “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” was the production’s home run.

To be sure, choreography throughout the production is dazzling thanks to choreographer Ms. Serafini and the company. 

The “Havana” number that is highlighted by a fight scene is simply sensational.  Executed to near perfection, the ensemble attired in eye-popping colorful costumes manages the high-energy extended dancing and fighting while they seamlessly clear the stage of the props and furniture at the scene’s end.  Also, the lively and comedic “Take Back Your Mink” performed by Ms. Farnsworth and the Hot Box (Nightclub) Dancers is another one of the show’s highlights.

Kudos goes to David Zotian as Lt. Brannigan, the intrepid policeman, who maintains his Irish brogue as a throwback to New York’s Irish policemen.  On that point, most of the actors consistently display New York accents without any slips.

Also, a nod goes to J.R. Hontz who convincingly plays Big Jule, the fear-invoking gangster from Chicago thirsty for the craps game and doesn’t like to lose. To that end, he brings his own dice to the  game with no dots on them, but he remembers where they were!

The remainder of the company is proficient in their acting, dancing and vocals that add strong support to the leads. Notably among them are: Sam Bishop/Kevin Nolan as Rusty Charlie, Chris Wilhelm with his strong tenor vocal in “More I Cannot Wish You” as Arvide Abernathy, Douglas Thomas as Angie the Ox, Dana Bonistalli as General Matilda R. Cartwright, and Michael Gbadamoshi as the Hot Box Emcee.

As noted previously, Laural Seivold Clark and her costume crew does a splendid job is fitting the cast in 1950’s attire from suits and hats for the guys and colorful dresses and gowns for the dolls, to missionary uniforms and costumes for assorted street characters.

HCST’s well-staged and performed production of Guys and Dolls is first-rate with all the pieces expertly fitting together.  A talented cast and crew under superb direction will result in one of the most memorable shows you will see.  You can bet on it.

Running time. Three hours with an intermission.

Guys and Dolls remaining performances are June 26, 27, 28 and 29 at Marriotts Ridge High School, 12100 Woodford Dr., Marriotsville, MD 21104

Ticket Prices are $22 for adults, $18 for children under 12 and seniors over 60. All seats are General Admission. Proceeds benefit Prepare for Success, The Salvation Army and Grassroots of Howard County. Tickets may be purchased at the door the evening of the performance or online.

Photos by Neil Rubino

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