Sometimes griping gets you gold.
In early 2012, during the technical rehearsal period of “The White Snake” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Chicago-based adaptor/director Mary Zimmerman was feeling worn down. In Zimmerman’s words, the play, based on a Chinese legend, was “artistically and physically laborious, and just big.”
“I said, out loud, ‘I just want to do “Guys and Dolls.” That’s all,’” Zimmerman recalled. “I just want to do something that you know when you start has a reasonable chance of pleasing the audience.”
“The White Snake” opened successfully, and a few months later, Zimmerman received an e-mail from the company’s Artistic Director Bill Rauch suggesting a “crazy idea.” He said “how would you like to direct ‘Guys and Dolls’ for us.”
“I was like, ‘Yes I would,’” Zimmerman replied.
And she did, three seasons later, directing a production that ran from February to November of 2015 in Ashland Oregon that recently closed and is now being remounted at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts beginning Dec. 1.
For the record, this is not a case of the theatrical cosmos lining up in the interest of wish fulfillment. Members of the “White Snake” company and crew forwarded Zimmerman’s lament to Rauch who shrewdly made it seem like the idea to have Zimmerman direct it was random.
Also for the record, the Damon Runyon-inspired “Guys and Dolls” is not what anybody would call a no-frills chamber piece. Between the gamblers, the Hot Box dancers, jaunts to Cuba and rousing chorus numbers set in sewers and Salvation Army halls alike, there’s plenty of room for splash. From a technical standpoint, the OSF production isn’t promising a blow the roof out experience. Zimmerman has relocated the action from the 1950s (when the musical was written) to the 1930s, the period in which the original Runyon stories were placed. And from a nuts and bolts perspective, it had to be a physically manageable production in order to effectively transport from Ashland to Beverly Hills.
“It’s sort of a minimalist setting. There’s not a lot of hoo-ha. That’s the technical term,” said Robin Goodrin Nordli who plays the marriage-hungry Hot Box dancer Miss Adelaide. “Mary Zimmerman won a MacArthur Fellowship and for good reason. She’s also an extremely down-to-earth person who wants to tell this story in the clearest possible way.”
Zimmerman won’t get much of an argument disputing the appeal of “Guys and Dolls.” The director calls it “a machine of pleasure.” Among genre lovers, it’s often cited as a near perfect musical.
“I have a constantly growing appreciation of the way its plot all hangs together in a really tight way,” Zimmerman said. “There’s nothing stray. Sometimes the A couple and the B couple just sort of lay side by side, but here they’re absolutely co-dependent. Everything hinges on that bet and the need to get a place for the crap game.”
Set over three eventful days in New York, “Guys and Dolls” follows gambler Nathan Detroit’s attempt to find a location for his crap game and dodge Miss Adelaide’s attempts – after a 14-year engagement – to finally get him to the altar. Meanwhile, legendary ladies man and gambler Sky Masterson bets Detroit that he (Skye) can get any “doll” to accompany him to Cuba. Except that the “doll” he has to woo is prim and proper Salvation Army Sgt. Sarah Brown.
With a book by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling and music by Frank Loesser, “Guys and Dolls” includes such numbers as “Luck Be a Lady,” “If I Were a Bell,” “My Time of Day” and “Fugue for Tinhorns.” Since the original production in 1950, there have been Broadway four revivals including the 1992 production with Peter Gallagher, Faith Prince and Nathan Lane. Nathan Lane who was born Joseph and named himself after “Guys and Dolls’” Detroit. There’s also the 1995 movie directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz featuring Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Vivian Blaine and Jean Simmons.
Zimmerman was on the crew of her high school production. Daniel Parker (who plays Nicely-Nicely Johnson) saw the 1992 production. Others among the principle cast of the OSF production recalled the film, but otherwise had little knowledge of the musical before starting work on the OSF version.
“I had never seen it. Isn’t that crazy? I must have been living under a rock or something,” said Jeremy Peter Johnson, OSF’s Sky Masterson. “I heard that it’s something like the most widely produced musical in America. High schools can do it. Kids can do it. Every single tune is memorable, every page has something fantastic on it and when I read it, it made me laugh out loud.”
“It was a little intimidating at first knowing it’s such a well known musical and everybody has images of it in their head,” added Rodney Gardiner who plays Nathan Detroit. “Most of the kids who will come to see the show have seen the movie and know Frank Sinatra, so it’s intimidating in that way, but it’s also assuring because you know it’s a rock solid piece. All you have to do is honor it.”
This is the second time that the Wallis has brought over an OSF musical. Several of the “Guys and Dolls” team were part of the cast of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods” which played an end of the year engagement at the Wallis in 2014.
“Guys and Dolls” plays 8 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 3 p.m. Sat., 2 and 7 p.m. Sun.; through Dec. 20 at 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 746-4000, www.thewallis.org.