Vocal harmonies, intricate dances mark 'Guys and Dolls' success

by: COURTESY PHOTO: THEATRE IN THE GROVE - Jennifer Yamashiro and Michael Rouches take the stage as  Miss Adelaide and Nathan Detroit, delivering performances praised by local reviewers. Nobody ever accused Theatre in the Grove of being afraid to tackle the tough ones, and the current production of “Guys and Dolls,” like the troupe’s last play, “August: Osage County,” clearly illustrates this point.

The large cast, intricate vocal harmonies, tricky timing, complex dance numbers and demanding speech patterns make this show more challenging than its pre-Lloyd Webber origins might predict. Director Darren Hurley has assembled a fine cast punctuated by some true standout performances to bring one of our favorite shows to the Forest Grove audience.

Set in the early 1950s, “Guys and Dolls” presents a cartoonish tribute to some of New York City’s seedier inhabitants — cheesy nightclub dancers, gamblers, gangsters and crooked cops — juxtaposed against a team of floundering missionaries desperate to draw sinners to their revival meetings at the “Save A Soul” mission. The two populations and story lines mesh when floating crap game organizer Nathan Detroit, played by Michael Rouches, bets inveterate gambler Sky Masterson, played by James Grimes, that he cannot get “Mission Doll” Sarah Brown, played by Carly Wasserstein, to accompany him to Havana. Through a series of misadventures, the gamblers end up in the mission twice — first to shoot craps, and later as somewhat repentant sinners.

Of the two lead couples, Sky and Sarah are always at a severe disadvantage when compared to Nathan and his perennial fiancé, Hot Box star Miss Adelaide, played by Jennifer Yamashiro. Nathan and Adelaide get almost all of the best comedy lines and songs, and Yamashiro and Rouches pitilessly exploit this advantage with their unbelievable performances. Neither actor misses the opportunity to shamelessly milk a line, gesture, nuance or scene. The timing, vocals and pathos of “Sue Me” exemplify the genius of this pairing, and “Adelaide’s Lament “ is a thing of beauty.

Another show highlight is “Marry the Man Today,” a number that gives Wasserstein a chance to shine, dumping her prim persona as she and Yamashiro conspire to ensnare their respective beaus. Wasserstein’s beautiful soprano blends well with Grimes’ “Broadway Baritone” in numbers like “My Time of Day/I’ve Never Been in Love Before.”

Speaking of shameless milking, Brandon Weaver’s portrayal of Detroit’s sidekick Nicely Nicely Johnson is a masterpiece — he never tries to steal a scene, yet any scene he’s in is immeasurably enhanced by his presence. From the opening number, “Fugue for Tinhorns,” through his quirky “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” his powerful and lovely tenor voice shapes many of the show’s best numbers.

“Guys and Dolls” requires a solid male vocal ensemble and Hurley’s cast lives up to the challenge. Justin Canfield does double duty on this score; as vocal director he has fine-tuned the chorus and as Benny Southstreet he lends his strong voice to several challenging numbers.

We are puzzled by the decision to put the orchestra in the pit, rather than on stage as if often done at TITG. The audience is deprived of the opportunity to watch a fine group of musicians, whose presence would have added an extra spark to the Hot Box and Havana scenes. In addition, the show’s dance numbers are somewhat constrained by the need to work around two large holes in the stage, and we found ourselves occasionally distracted by the fear that a cast member might — as in the vernacular of the show — “take a dive.” In addition, choreography for the “Luck Be A Lady” ensemble and the talented and nimble Hot Box Dancers could have been more fluid had they been working on a solid stage.

Zachary Centers’ set design is simple but attractive, and cleverly engineered to allow for frequent and rapid scene changes. The sound was flawless — no opening night audio glitches — as was the lighting.

TITG is fortunate to have brought director Hurley back into the fold; the technical and artistic quality of his recent productions have been well-received by Washington County theater-goers, who are lucky to have had a community theater like TITG in their midst for more than 40 years.

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