“Of all the high players this country ever sees, there is no doubt but that the guy they call The Sky is the highest. In fact, the reason he is called The Sky is because he goes so high when it comes to betting on any proposition whatever.”
So begins “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown,” a short story that was written almost entirely in present tense by the American writer Damon Runyon. The proposition on which The Sky takes a $1,000 wager is that he can convince the devout, conservative and comely Salvation Mission worker Sarah Brown of the title to join him on a trip to Havana for one night. It then becomes a battle of wills: will “The Sky” (with the last name of Masterson) reform from his gambling ways, or will Sarah leave the Mission for the wicked ways of the world?
This story, amalgamated with another Runyon story “Blood Pressure,” is well-known to lovers of the American musical as “Guys and Dolls,” and visitors to the Kensington Arts Theatre have a welcome opportunity to experience this work with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, some for the first time and others for the umpteenth time in a wonderful production directed by Craig Pettinati and running through Nov. 24.
The music conducted live by Matthew Dohm is good and the singing is very good, but what makes this production stand out is the characterizations. Sky Masterson, Sarah Brown, dice-game organizer Nathan Detroit and Nathan’s fiancée (of twelve years!) Miss Adelaide seem to have walked straight out of the 1930s (if you know this work from the story) or the 1950s (if you know it from the Broadway musical or the Marlon Brando-Frank Sinatra film).
“Luck Be a Lady” is sung with verve by Jordan Clifford as Sky Masterson. “If I Were a Bell” is sung operatically by the vocally gifted Justine Summers who plays Sarah Brown (the program notes inform us that she is experienced in performing Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera). Stephen P. Yednock deftly voices and acts out gangster Big Jule with true feeling, as if he were a native of Runyonland.
Jeff Breslow, who stars as Nathan Detroit, and Elizabeth Hester, who plays Miss Adelaide, evoke the period in accent, dress and mannerisms, showing fabulous chemistry, for instance, during their performance of “Sue Me.” The choreography of Kendall Sigman is excellent, most notably in “A Bushel and a Peck” featuring Adelaide and the Hotbox Performers and the instrumental portion of “Luck Be a Lady” with dancing gamblers.
Not only does the show exude mid-twentieth century verisimilitude and bring Loesser’s great music to the stage but accentuates the humorous portions of the musical as well and there are many comedic, witty and even ironic lines throughout the play.
As Sky Masterson attempts to woo Sarah Brown, the supposed sinner conveys an impressive knowledge of Scripture, even correcting the upright mission worker that a Biblical passage she has posted is from Isaiah, not Proverbs. Sarah Brown expresses that her ideal man must have a “moral fiber to the wisdom in his head, to the homey aroma around his pipe” (according to the song lyrics of “I’ll Know”).
Yet it is ironic that she is looking for these moral characteristics but ends up falling for a gambler – a “sinner” who has hidden moral qualities disguised beneath an unwholesome exterior.
Unlike Sarah Brown, Miss Adelaide is portrayed as a faithful but morally ambiguous “doll,” in the parlance of the play and the day; however, Adelaide’s ultimate ideal of domestic home life and children is more traditional compared to Sarah Brown’s quests for perfection in faith and love. The Kensington Arts Theatre production is particularly effective in moments bringing out such features of “Guys and Dolls.”
Two other aspects of this production deserve to be singled out as highly imaginative. One is that the first scenes of the performance feature slides and video projections evoking mid-twentieth century New York City; these then giving way to increasingly elaborate sets and on-stage props.
Another highly praiseworthy characteristic of the production is that in certain scenes actors (mostly those playing gamblers and gangsters) sit among and even chat with the audience; thus, as the supposedly disreputable characters in one scene sit in Sarah Brown’s Mission, it is if we are directly in the Mission ourselves.
The current production of “Guys and Dolls” is a sure bet for entertainment! It can be enjoyed at the Kensington Arts Theatre at Kensington Town Center at 3710 Mitchell Street in Kensington, Maryland, through Nov. 24. For further information, please visit: www.katonline.org.