Ring Theatre does Runyon proud in 'Guys and Dolls'

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- It’s little wonder that performers and audience members alike cannot seem to get enough of “Guys and Dolls.” 

Who among us doesn’t adore those loveable, stylish bad guys who like to think of themselves as macho and full of moxie yet wouldn’t hurt a fly, much less a gal who does him wrong?

Add in that vibrant, glorious, sticky score by Frank Loesser, plenty of color, contrast, wacky humor and gorgeous girls, er, dolls in a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows and perfection seems possible.

Indeed, many consider the much-revived “Guys and Dolls” the perfect musical comedy and University of Miami students are also apparently high on this evergreen 1950 Tony Award-winner for Best Musical.

A cast comprising promising future thespians are giving the show a respectable production in many respects through Saturday at the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre, with some stand-out performances.

It’s tempting, in “Guys and Dolls,” to turn some of source author Damon Runyan’s quirky, colorful characters into complete caricatures, while not imbuing them with an ounce of humanity.

The easy way out if you're playing nightclub performer Miss Adelaide, for instance, is to portray her as nothing more than a scatterbrained, ditzy blonde with an over-exaggerated New York accent. Sure, it might make us laugh at her, but in a non-sympathetic manner if she’s reduced to merely a pea-size brained sex object.

Well, that’s hardly what Rebecca Muller (who's not blonde, by the way) has done with the role. She invests the character with convincing vulnerability and conveys a raw, aching, seemingly real pain and frustration…even as Miss Adelaide repeatedly insists that the cause of her chronic cold is her never-ending status as a fiancé to Nathan Detroit (Matt Paris, more on him later).

It’s a testament to Muller’s honest, strong performance that we sympathize with a woman who blames her cold on her fiancé because he consistently postpones their wedding (poor Miss Adelaide, who’s stuck with a man who is kind and gentle, but whose broken promises seem to never end).

But Muller's Miss Adelaide doesn't ask for pity. She imparts an indomitable spirit and a fierce will to fight through her lover's constant wedding postponements. However, Adelaide is clearly a comical character -- but the fact Muller imbues her with humanity and earns every laugh and makes us care about her.

 She, like the rest of the characters, are living in post World War II, a time that gave great hope to so many, including supposedly "low-lives" like Miss Adelaide in their pursuit of all the comforts of the American dream.

In Runyan's mythical New York City of Post World War II, even the gangsters earn our admiration. They, too, want a piece of that American dream and we see that at the very beginning when three of them are comparing notes regarding which race horse has the best odds at winning...and earning them some money. The scene opens with the characters bursting into song with "Fugue for Tinhorns," the three-part round that, very appropriately, repeats the words "can do," reinforcing the optimism of the period. The song carries a bright, upbeat melody and is sung by gamblers Nicely Nicely Johnson, Benny and Rusty (Brian Perrault, Brian Reiff and Robert Fritz, respectively, without missing a beat.

The "bad guys" in "Guys and Dolls," for the most part, seem tame, but that doesn't mean some of them aren't tough. That's particularly true with Harry the Horse, played by Daniel Barrett with a scratchy, husky voice, and shady facial expressions in which his eyes betray a sinister quality. Barrett, who moves in an unsteady manner, has one of those James Cagney-like expressions. But Barrett's Harry is a sweet puppy compared to Bennett Leeds' bullying, menacing Big Jule, who strikes fear in even Harry.

In stark contrast to these two tough cookies are the "Save a Soul Mission's" Sarah Brown (Samantha Dockser, who has a lovely, expressive singing voice and alternates seamlessly between frustration, suspicion and joy). There's a "Marian the Librarian" like interaction between her and unapologetic, daring gambler Sky Masterson (played by Akea Kahikina as a cool, confident, suave fast talker not unlike "Professor" Harold Hill in "The Music Man," which includes "Marian the Librarian as one of its songs).

In contrast to the collected Masterson is "Good Ole' Reliable" Nathan Detroit, the sweet gambler who runs the "oldest permanent floating crap game" in New York. In this production, Detroit's played as a thoroughly charming, hyper, impulsive man on a mission by Matt Paris, who sometimes overacts, as do some other cast members.

Speaking of mission and missionaries, Runyan's mythical New York City includes the "sinners" and those trying to steer them away from the devil. They are Brown and her crew from the Save a Soul Mission (which share similarities to the Salvation Army), including Brown's grandfather, Arvide (a kindly, sincere Blake Hawthorne). One area in which the cast can improve is the song "Follow the Fold," the orderly, formal number that differs from the more loose "Fugue for Tinhorns, which precedes "Follow the Fold." Cast members, at least in the beginning, sing the song in a strangely bright, silly manner.

The worlds of the gamblers and missionaries fully collide in the rollicking, riveting "Sit Down, You're Rockin' The Boat," which is one of the production's high points. It starts slow, in a dramatic fashion before building into a rousing number. Ditto for such songs as "The Crapshooters Dance" (which features some lively moves), "Lucky Be a Lady" and the title song.

Masterson and Brown sing a touching, intimate "I've Never Been in Love Before," while "Sue Me" proves a nice vehicle for Muller to showcase Miss Adelaide's exasperation and Paris to convey Detroit's gentleness -- the song, especially as performed here, is a great study in contrasts.

There's variety in costume designer Michiko Kitayama Skinner's colorful, jazzy costumes, which befit the stylistic nature of the show, while lighting designer Bryan Kaschube enhances mood and creates focus with his hues. Under fight director Lee Soroko, some of the scenes involving struggles could look more authentic.

April Soroko's scenic design, consisting mostly of flats, help establish locale, even if the set pieces aren't the most elaborate.

The actors, all more than capable singers, are backed by a lively band that, for the most part, doesn't drown out the actors voices.

Under Michael Bush's inspired direction, the actors and members of the technical crew prevail, for the most part, in a production of a musical classic, adding up to a valiant effort.

 IF YOU GO

WHAT: "Guys and Dolls"

WHEN: 8 p.m. today through Saturday, as well as 2 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Ring Theatre, 1312 Miller Drive, Coral Gables on the University of Miami campus

HOW MUCH: $25 for regular admission, $22 for seniors, UM faculty, staff and alumni and $10 for students. Call (305) 284-3355 or visit www.miami.edu/ring.