All right, I'll confess: I really didn't want to see the PHAMALy (Physically Handicapped Amateur Musical Actors League, Incorporated) production of Guys and Dolls. In principle, I'm all for the idea of a troupe of handicapped actors putting on a show, and I had no doubt such a project would be inspiring for the participants, but it didn't sound like my idea of an enlightening or entertaining evening. My life as a reviewer is full of surprises, however -- and a good thing, too, or I'd have all the answers before ever leaving home for the theater. I had a terrific time at Guys and Dolls. Not terrific as in heartwarming, touching, isn't-it-wonderful-how-those-poor-people-can-be-so-upbeat-and-creative, but terrific as in a straight-up great time. I laughed. I cried a bit. I walked out exhilarated and humming.
It doesn't hurt that Guys and Dolls is a first-rate musical. The songs are some of the best you'll hear, from witty, toe-tapping group numbers like "Fugue for Tinhorns," "Guys and Dolls" and "The Oldest Established (permanent floating crap game in New York)" through Sarah and Sky's heart-melting love songs to the purely brilliant "Luck Be a Lady" and the gospel-flavored "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat." And then there are Miss Adelaide's Hot Box ditties, with their funny mix of cynicism and innocence: "Bushel and a Peck," "Take Back Your Mink."
The plot, based on a short story by Damon Runyon, concerns Sky Masterson, a gambler who will gamble on anything, including which of two raindrops will reach the bottom of the window first. Short of the cash he needs to nail down his venue for the aforementioned floating crap game, Nathan Detroit bets Sky -- who's been bragging about his prowess with women -- that he won't be able to persuade a certain doll to accompany him on a brief trip to Havana. (When Guys and Dolls was written, Havana was a Mafia-dominated international destination for anyone seeking drugs, gambling and prostitutes.) That doll is Sergeant Sarah Brown of the Save-a-Soul mission. Naturally, Sky and Sarah fall in love. Their romance is paralleled by a secondary affair between Nathan and Miss Adelaide, an exotic dancer. You can see how this story allows for lively group scenes -- and inventive choreography -- among the gamblers and the mission people. It's also an inspired choice for this particular troupe because it involves two groups that exist outside mainstream society and essentially create their own cultures (the gangsters use a stylized dialect invented by Runyon, slow and deliberate, with every syllable given due weight) -- even if one group is on the right side of the law and the other on the wrong.
Guys and Dolls
Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 14th and Curtis streets
Presented by PHAMALy through August 1, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org
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But it's the performances that make or break a production, and PHAMALy boasts some excellent performers. With a nod to Marlon Brando's interpretation in the film, Leonard Barrett gives us a Sky Masterson who's controlled and cunning, mischievous, charming and also compassionate -- in other words, complex. He also sings well. Nathan Detroit is constantly vacillating between his love for Adelaide and his equally strong love of gambling, and Jim Hubbard makes us empathize with the character's every turn and slide. Hubbard's limp, rather than detracting, adds a tantalizing touch of color to the character. It's been a long time since I've seen a pair of female leads as engaging as Lucy Roucis's wistful Miss Adelaide and Lyndsay Giraldi's peppery Sarah Brown. Stephen Hahn provides a strong presence and a powerful voice as Nicely-Nicely Johnson; Harry the Horse, played by Tara Cowan, loses none of his authority for being wheelchair-bound, not to mention female; Kathleen Traylor's beautiful rendition of the Irish-accented "More I Cannot Wish You" brought tears to my eyes.
The actors' success had nothing to do with transcending physical limitations or making these limitations irrelevant or invisible. Rather, these actors worked with such imagination and conviction that things we might have defined as limitations were absorbed into the characterizations. If Roucis's hand shook, if there was a slight unsteadiness to her walk, you didn't think, "Oh, how brave that actress is." You didn't think about the actress at all. You thought about Adelaide, and what an interesting character she was. I don't know if Giraldi's fierceness as Sarah, the abandon with which she flung herself into "If I Were a Bell," had anything to do with her physical limitations, and I don't care. I do know hers was the spikiest, most original Sarah I could hope to see.
I don't want to exaggerate. Obviously, part of the exhilaration of this Guys and Dolls came from our knowledge of the extraordinarily long odds some of the participants had battled in order to walk onto a stage. Periodically, you noticed one actor helping another, someone guiding a blind singer to the right place or laying a strengthening hand on a colleague's shoulder. And yes, these moments were touching. So was the actors' obvious joy in the work and the honesty with which they tackled it.
Clearly, Steve Wilson's direction and Debbie Stark's choreography have a lot to do with the professionalism of the production. Donna Kolpan Debreceni's musical direction and keyboard playing lay down a strong foundation for every scene. There's a breathtaking moment in one of Stark's numbers, in which Teri Westerman makes her wheelchair execute a series of pirouettes. Who said you need legs to dance?