BY SANDY STAGGS
Spartanburg Little Theatre ends its 2017-18 regular season with a faithful and endearing production of the venerable classic “Guys and Dolls.” In the works for well over a year, this old fashioned musical experience invokes nostalgic pleasantries from the musicals of the 1950s when the play was written, but also a dose of homecoming in sorts for SLT Executive Director Jay Coffman, who made his first appearance with the company some 15 years ago as a bit player in this same show.
“Guys and Dolls” with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and a book by Joe Swerling and Abe Burrow, opens with Coffman’s masterful snapshot of the New York City underbelly. In the instrumental “Runyonland,” a panoply of sinners crisscross the stage in deliciously inventive vignettes that exemplify the disreputable quintessence archetypes from the stories of Damon Runyon that inspired the musical: street hustlers, gamblers, con artists, ladies of the evening and even a pair of amateur boxers.
The always-indelible Ben Dawkins stars as Nathan Detroit, a good-hearted gambler who just can’t resist a good craps game. His comedic antics are divided between trying finding a safe location for a game hidden from the eyes of local beat cop Lt. Brannigan (Robert Searle), as well as his devoted fiancée of 14 years, Miss Adelaide (Joanna Haynes).
To secure $1,000 he needs to use a local garage for the crapshoot, he makes a wager with the worldly Sky Masterson (Trey Hendon), a successful gambler and smooth operating ladies’ man, that he can’t convince the neighborhood Bible crusader from Save-a-Soul Mission, Sarah Brown (newcomer Eowyn Melaragno) to have dinner with Sky in Havana.
The pious Sarah Brown resist a date with Sky and his promise to recruit 12 sinners, but later acquiesces when the mission is at risk of closing due to its low success rate of converts. She goes to Havana and after a couple of fruity Cuban concoction made with “Bacardi flavoring,” the modest, rigid young woman becomes entranced by the Latin rhythms of “Havana” and joins in the salsa and rumba on the dance floor in a lengthy, graceful dance sequence (choreographed by April Kibbe) that is executed with balletic precision and ends with Sarah in a catfight with local islander.
“Guys and Dolls” is an incredibly hilarious and well-written show with a gaggle of one-liners and running jokes. But nothings tops the dynamics of the relationship between Nathan and Miss Adelaide, who (unbeknownst to her fiancé), has been regularly updating her mother on their “marriage” and “5 children with one on the way.”
And the magnificent Haynes was born to play this part. She actually sang “Adelaide’s Lament” about her character’s psychosomatic illness at last year’s season’s reveal. With a perky disposition and perfect Brooklyn accent, Hayne’s nearly steals every scene she’s in, even when appearing in her nightclub act at the Hot Box with a squad of burlesque dancers.
Melaragno, a trained opera singer, delivers the most exquisite voice of the evening in songs like “If I Were A Bell” and with Hendon in the duets “I’ll Know” “I’ve Never Been in Love Before.” Yes, “Guys and Dolls” is essentially a romantic comedy crossed with the theme of redemption. And both Melaragno and Hendon land their opposing and transformative story arcs with aplomb.
This show also some SLT family heavy hitters in the ladies ensemble with this season’s previous leading ladies Anna-Elyse Lewis, Anna Lee Altman and Sarah Hurley among others leaving their mark in one of the musical’s signature numbers “A Bushel and A Peck.”
And the guy ensemble is not to be outdone by the dolls just because they have flashier costumes. Many of the show’s jokes come at the expense of Nathan’s underlings: David Guthrie (husband of SLT regular Loir Guthrie) in his SLT debut as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Ryan Barry in perky falsetto as Benny Southstreet, and Josh Goshorn as Rusty Charlie dazzle in “Fugue for Tinhorns” and the wonderful all-guy “The Crapshooter’s Dance”
Hendon leads the company in a faithful rendition of the Frank Sinatra standard “Luck Be a Lady” and Guthrie navigates the gang through the show’s famous inspiring, hand-clapping gospel number “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat.”
Scenic Designer Will Luther sets the action under a series of skewed steel bridge supports that invoke the skyscrapers that began towering in Manhattan in the 1930s; and he juxtaposes the scenes with whimsical and colorful backdrops. Though there is one perplexing scene when Sky and Sarah return to New York at 4 a.m. Instead of a starry sky, we are left to look at a blank, poorly-lit white backdrop.
Spartanburg Little Theatre never spares expense on costumes and “Guys and Dolls” is no exception. From the spiffy zoot suits and fedoras in a cavalcade of colors (purple plaids, orange solids and green stripes), the cool island attire in linen and billowy fabrics for the Havana scene, and of course, revealing but tasteful burlesque costumes for the hot Hot Box Girls in the nightclub: canary yellow feathers and later, gorgeous sapphire gowns with mink stoles.
Ben Chumley returns as music director for this rousing production and conducts an 11-piece band in this brass heavy score.
Stage Manager Bethany Lancaster, Assistant Stage Manager Assistant Manager Ashley Zimmerman, lighting by Peter Lamson, Jennifer Latto is Costume Coordinator, Connie McIntyre is head seamstress, and Beth Hedden and Leah Hedden are on props.
“Guys and Dolls” continues this weekend May 11-13, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. with 3 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday. And don’t miss the summer Fringe show “Rock of Ages” July 13-22. For tickets, visit chapmanculturalcenter.org.