Tuned Out

Last October, when I was a guest on KERA 90.1's The Glenn Mitchell Show discussing the 1999 Dallas Theater Critics Forum awards, a woman called in and bluntly asked, as per my solitary pan of Dallas Theater Center's South Pacific, "What's wrong with Jimmy Fowler's mind?"

Was this Richard Hamburger, that production's director, retaliating in a prank caller's falsetto? Just as I decided it was not, but before I could explain to the caller that it would take two or three Glenn Mitchell shows to adequately explain what's wrong with my mind, the other Forum critics chivalrously jumped to my defense -- although they had, as I recall, enjoyed South Pacific and may have also questioned my faculties in the privacy of their own cubicles.

To be fair to myself, I didn't think my dislike of Hamburger's disengaged, scurried-through, spottily cast show could be chalked up to my general wariness of musicals. An orthodox rabbi may not appreciate the subtler flavors while judging a pork recipe contest at the county fair, but he can surely tip his yarmulke at the energy, imagination, and ingenuity used in the preparation. Nor do I think my similar crashing disappointment at Hamburger's revival of Loesser-Swerling-Burrows' Guys and Dolls is reactionary, although it springs from the skepticism of one who does not believe that one of the most beloved American musicals should be approached with the solemnity of an English literary scholar deciphering one of Shakespeare's original drafts. Why let other people's awe -- whether they be critics, devotees, or consumers -- contaminate your perception?

Still, something about hearing -- not to mention humming -- the famous tunes in Guys and Dolls clearly still makes a lot of people happy after five decades, so I can't dispute a certain timelessness to the material. I can, however, qualify the time I spent shifting in a good seat at the Arts District during the big anti-climax that is clearly Dallas Theater Center's hope for a box-office-busting follow-up to South Pacific, allegedly its biggest seller to date. The desultory experience made me wonder whether Hamburger, who has never been famous for coaxing grand, sincere emotions out of his onstage performers, has the directorial goods to bust through my cynicism and make musicals the blood-rushing exorcism of human folly and antidote to human frailty they should be.

As soon as you eyeball Ming Cho Lee's generically sunny set -- all those creamy citruses and cartoon illustrations of taxicabs make Times Square look like a giant natal ward -- you get a sense of slight displacement from the material's potential. And this nagging sensation that DTC's stage artists are at least once removed from the source material, leaving you distanced twice or more, continues, despite isolated moments of delight. It took the show's original producers 11 different scribes to finally decide that what they wanted was a comedy, and that Abe Burrows, a former newspaperman and writer of radio and TV sketch comedy who had never before scribbled for the theater, was the one to jazz up writer Damon Runyon's gangsterspeak. Frank Loesser would go on to write music for the recently rediscovered The Most Happy Fella and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, but never would he create a collection of songs woven so skillfully and inextricably into the fabric of a stage show. Indeed, Guys and Dolls seems to be that rarest of theatrical creatures -- a show whose songs make little sense outside of a production yet are covered because folks adore the whole damn score and are thrilled to hear just a piece of it revived. A speedy and nimble live jazz orchestra complements the smooth singing throughout DTC's effort, enough so that you get a respectable taste of the lyric and melodic inventiveness amidst the scattered effectiveness of the dramatic exchanges.

Out-of-towner Michelle Ragusa handily performs the same stunt in Guys and Dolls that she did in South Pacific as Nellie Forbush. She almost single-handedly redeems the show and at the same time throws into harsh relief everything that's wrong with it. As Adelaide, the stripper with a psychosomatic allergy toward her duplicitous beau, she emits lighthouse-sized signals of joy and weariness. Her gorgeous singing, like her performance in general, uses the squeaky Brooklyn-dame accent to make wings, not crutches. Although professionalism abounds in the performers who surround her, the enthusiasm begins to deteriorate. Tom Zemon as Sky Masterson is handsome but plastic; Heather Ayers, a no-nonsense Sarah played, thankfully, without the saintly aftertaste, never has a fleshy object on which she can hook her affections. Stephen Berger seems to be avoiding easy goombah mannerisms as craps king Nathan Detroit, but his performance is little more than a comic smudge, a diverting if hasty sketch of a street-corner high roller. As Detroit's most comical sidekick Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Ray Friedick had trouble breathing through what seems to be many people's favorite tune -- "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat," a revival-meeting confession of sin on the way to salvation -- and in the process managed to shoot blanks during a surefire showstopper.

All the singing and high kicking in DTC's Guys and Dolls burn energy, but they don't fire the emotions. Similarly, there is no exothermic culmination of Runyon's love stories: When Adelaide wanders the stage in a wedding dress looking for her fiancé Nathan with bridesmaids straggling behind, Michelle Ragusa's steps seem an aimless afterthought through cold, empty winds, despite the performer's impressive comic focus. The general lack of connection among principals in this show, the strain and creakiness here and there in the big dance numbers, and the way signature tunes start off but only occasionally build to anything consequential give you the impression that the cast has not been encouraged to feel like organs inside a larger, breathing creature. Nostalgia aside, that is surely what makes musicals so difficult to do well -- the holistic sense a director must convey so the book (the brain), the score (the bloodstream), and the cast (the body) are functioning together to give us a vision of ourselves that thrills because it's at once exaggerated and identifiable. Save Ragusa, who may be such a professional that she can fake onstage sincerity, the many cast members of Guys and Dolls seem curiously perfunctory and dispassionate inside their roles, at times barely aware of what the actor to whom they are speaking means to their character. What many critics found so laudable in last year's South Pacific -- its clipped and astringent delivery -- makes the gruff and lovable New York street scenesters here feel like a mob waiting for an event. If the results seem to leave the performers unfulfilled, think how impatient it made the folks who paid $17-$54 to see something happen. You realize that vigilante justice has two benefits over mediocre regional theater -- it's free, and it gives you something worth yelling about.

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Jimmy Fowler