Guys and Dolls at the Wallis Annenberg Is Pure Escapism

Robin Goodrin Nordli in Guys and DollsEXPAND
Robin Goodrin Nordli in Guys and Dolls
Photo by Kevin Parry

Writer-director-adapter Mary Zimmerman is perhaps best known in Los Angeles for Metamorphoses, her adaptation of Ovid’s epic poem (and other myths), which played at the Mark Taper Forum in 2008. Years before, I caught her 1993 staging of The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. The piece, which melded music and movement with excerpts from the journals of the great Renaissance artist/scientist, was truly dazzling. It was followed in 1994 by the imaginative and visually stunning Arabian Nights. After 20 years, I still revere both.

Zimmerman’s efforts are again on view at the Wallis Annenberg in something entirely different: Guys and Dolls, the 1950s musical with music by Frank Loesser and book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows. The show is performed by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and was originally developed for them at the behest of its director Bill Rauch, the co-founder and former artistic director of our own Cornerstone Theater Company.

It would be hard to find source material that contrasted more radically with Ovid or da Vinci than that of novelist and short-story writer Damon Runyon, whose characters, bookies and gangsters and “dolls,” are nonetheless gifted with their own rich vernacular and odd dissembling innocence. (There are, for example, no assault rifles in view, and only one revolver that remains in its holster.) The show is pure escapist fare — even its trespasses against feminism, realized in revealing can-cans and other naughty dances of that sort (the two gentlemen in front of me clapped wildly) — are absolutely and lusciously forgivable.

Alas, Daniel Pelzig’s choreography and its execution are the most outstanding elements of this very standard production, which is not bad, exactly, just forgettable. One could have stayed home and watched the movie version with Brando and Sinatra and been better entertained.

Jeremy Peter Johnson plays Sky Masterson, the freewheeling inveterate gambler who’s challenged by his friend Nathan Detroit (Rodney Gardiner) to lure an attractive Salvation Army missionary (Kate Hurster) to a night with him in Havana. Detroit is looking to score $1,000 from Masterson — that’s the price Masterson must pay if he fails — so Detroit will have cash to rent space for a crap game. The other matter pressing on the weaseling Detroit’s mind is his girlfriend, Adelaide (Robin Goodrin Nordli), who's hounding him to marry her after a 14-year engagement that shows no sign of coming to an end.

Nordli as Nathan’s dim-witted paramour is probably the most successfully comical presence among the four principals, while Johnson displays a portion of Sky’s requisite panache. But Hurster is lacking a certain winsome vulnerability, and if there’s chemistry between her and Johnson, it’s not discernible. Such lyrics as “I’ll know when my love comes along” kind of lose their lilt.

There are a couple of pleasing cameos, including Daniel T. Parker as Nicely-Nicely, and Eugene Ma as the wary landlord who won’t take Nathan’s marker. Designer Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes are lots of fun too. But all of it together isn’t enough to warrant investing 2½ hours of one’s time, especially with wittier and more inventive shows to support, sown in our own theatrical backyard.

Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 746-4000, thewallis.org; through Dec. 20.


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