‘Guys and Dolls’ at Rockville Musical Theatre by Mara Bayewitz

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I discovered something while at opening night of Guys and Dolls – what I thought was my Grandma Grace’s favorite nursery rhyme, “A Bushel and a Peck,” originated as a song from this show. Having never seen this Broadway classic before, I was shocked to also learn that I knew more than half of the numbers. My companion put it perfectly: “This show has more songs that most people know than almost any other musical in history.” What we both learned was that Rockville Musical Theatre’s production of Guys and Dolls is truly terrific.

Sara Charbonneau (Adelaide).
Sara Charbonneau (Adelaide).

Based on the short stories of Damon Runyon, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, and book by Joe Swerling and Abe Burrows, Guys and Dolls is the classic tale of two people from opposite sides of the God-loving tracks falling in love despite their attempts to cling to loneliness. The show opens on a Broadway street scene in 1950’s New York City. Devil-may-care gangsters bet on the outcome of the daily races until they are interrupted by the Save-a-Soul Mission marching band led by Sarah Brown (Katherine Riddle), a young, serious woman wearing an outfit normally seen on a private school girl – though in this show, she doesn’t transform into a sex pot; all she removes is her sweater. Nathan Detroit (Jacy D’Aiutolo), the local craps boss, bets another gambler, Sky Masterson (Christopher Overly) $1000 that he can’t find a “Doll” to take to Havana with him in 24 hours. Of course, Detroit selects Sarah Brown as the subject, while Nathan remains in a 14-year engagement with the ditzy, adorable and patient Miss Adelaide (Sara Charbonneau). What follows is romance, humor, anger, regret, and love.

This show has a formula that needs no updating or special multimedia extravaganza to remain relevant. Director Eric S. Scerbo’s vision is simple and clear: cast some of the best local talent in your show, give them everything they need to succeed (an obviously great musical director in Valerie A. Higgs, for one) and let them fly. It’s like changing the melody in a Beatles song to make it current: it messes with perfection, which never gets old. Scerbo clearly knows where to focus his energy and he is right on the mark.

Riddle and Overly have instant chemistry as Sarah and Sky, due in no small part to Brown’s selfless approach to the role. She has a voice with a sound as classically beautiful as white satin, yet she never bathes in her own talent. She gives so much to Overly in every moment they share together, building a relationship at a regular pace. Overly would have to be made of stone not to return the gift – and he does, quite handily. His voice is clear, soothing, and romantic, especially in “Luck Be A Lady,” He oozes charm, especially as he starts to realize he loves this fabric-covered young woman.

The show belongs equally, if not at times more so, to D’Aiutolo and Charbonneau. Their Nathan and Adelaide are so perfectly wrong that they are just right. Charbonneau delivers the most memorable performance of the night, striking the perfect balance between campy and human. We believe every emotion squeaking, screeching, and sneezing out of her body. In “Adelaide’s Lament,” she owns the stage with her commanding and belting voice, as she struts, sashays, and coughs in true dramatic fashion.

In “Sue Me,” D’Aiutolo gives the most touching performance of the night, as he finally admits he isn’t a good man but is only a man with Adelaide by his side. I could have watched that number on repeat several times.

The other actors in the show deliver charm, presence and great vocals. There are too many to mention, so the highlight reel includes Micky Goldstein as Nicely-Nicely Johnson singing “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.” He brought the house down at the end when he belted that last line. I’ve seen Goldstein in several shows and with his vocal performance in that number, he outdoes himself. Also noteworthy is Gary Carl Fackenthall’s tender and understated “More I Cannot Wish You” and “The Oldest Established” with D’Aiutolo, Goldstein, and the classic screwball sidekick with the killer voice, Benny (Hark Tagunicar). The barbershop ending of that song was gorgeous.

The rest of the ensemble is very good across the board, solid and consistent. Sara Schabach’s choreography is most enjoyed in “The Crap Shooter’s Dance,’ in which the male ensemble (and a few women in suspenders and hats) simulates an evening of gambling with classy, clever dance moves and male pheromones.

The production values are simple and clean, using Stephen Deming’s lighting design to change the time of day and Robert A. Thompson and Mary Seng’s primary-colored movable set design to change settings. The sound design was great, especially when you barely notice it. Mike Taylor and Steve Quillen use sound as background street noise; I especially appreciated hearing water droplets while the gang shot craps in the sewer. Across the board, Scerbo shows that he knows where to add the special touches and where to let it lie.

You do not need to travel to New York to visit Broadway. All you have to do is to see Rockville  Musical Theatre’s Guys and Dolls and you’ll feel like you did.

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Guys and Dolls plays through November 16, 2013 at F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre – 603 Edmonston Drive, in Rockville, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (240) 314-8690, or purchase them online.