By Harry Haun
02 Mar 2009
|Photo by Aubrey Reuben|
Identified only as Damon in the Playbill, he's played by Raymond Del Barrio as a broad-brimmed boulevardier who swims with the Manhattan local color that he'll immortalize in short stories.
He's everywhere, starting with a blank piece of paper on which he types "Broadway Stories By: Damon Runyon." Then he goes among them to collect his material, milling with the decidedly idiosyncratic hoi polloi for inspiration. He's there on the sidelines for the big crapshoot in the subterranean sewer system. He's there, stowed away on that water taxi to Cuba. He's there counting the heads of sinners who honor their markers by making personal appearances at a Save-A-Soul Mission meeting.
As a way of saying his world and welcome to it, director Des McAnuff and choreographer Sergio Trujillo — the Jersey Boys duo — have re-invented and splashed high, wide and handsome the spectacular opening number known as "Runyonland," run ragged with dazzling wall-size projections and eye-popping neons that fan out from the stage to engulf the audience. Lighting designer Howell Binkley, in particular, has been allowed license to kill. Then, when you factor in the scenery design of Robert Brill and the costume design of Paul Tazewell, it makes quite a sensory pounding. Whoa!
Something else new about this current revival is the reshuffled billing of the leading four characters. Now, the subplot's Nathan Detroit (Oliver Platt) and Miss Adelaide (Lauren Graham) come ahead of the main storyline's Sky Masterson (Craig Bierko) and Sarah Brown (Kate Jennings Grant), and nobody seems to know why.
"I had nothing to do with that," McAnuff insisted, but he agreed about the priority of the pairs. "The Nathan-Adelaide subplot comes from a short story called 'Pick a Winner,' but the main storyline was always 'The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown.'"
Bierko was just pleased about being aboard. "I think that it's the four of us, but you know what? I don't care. I'm just so happy that they're letting me do this at all."
The newly top-billed Platt shrugged it all off with "Maybe I was the first one in."
Change either way is a good thing for an established classic, McAnuff contended. His Guys and Dolls is the first one to show its roots. Previous editions have blurred the time period in which this Broadway is set, but the Playbill lists McAnuff's as taking place in "New York City in the time of Damon Runyon" (which would be 1880-1946). "He stopped writing the Broadway stories in 1937," the director noted. "He was dead by the time Guys and Dolls came by. In fact, his whole world had passed by.
"I think that any great play — and this is a great play — needs to be interpreted for the times. It's important to shake off these usual notions and try to look at the material honestly. All I did was, I went back and looked at the same source material that Abe Burrows and Frank Loesser looked at — the Runyon stories that are set in the '30s — and I asked myself, 'If they were around now, would they set it in 1950? I think the answer is no. I think if they were around now, I don't think they would set it in 2009. I think they'd go back to the original period. The reason they didn't do that, I believe, is that they had just gone through World War II and they had just gone through the Depression, so the last thing anybody wanted to do in 1949 was to go back to 1935.
"I think it's totally fine to set it in the land of bobby-soxers — it has been done superbly — but this is a different time we're in now, and I think it's legitimate to go back to the time of the stories and, maybe, to take a slightly more naturalistic approach to the stories. It's less of a cartoon than it is sometimes performed as."
One could deduce from the technical wizardry at work here that this is the man who gave Broadway The Farnsworth Invention all too briefly last season. He is also bringing back for seconds three actors from that play: Jim Ortlieb (Arvide Abernathy), Steve Rosen (Benny Southstreet) and Spencer Moses (Rusty Charlie).
Following this Broadway fling, McAnuff plans to return to the office — to Canada's Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where he is artistic director, and "begin work on Macbeth and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum — simultaneously — starting in about ten days. I will be schizophrenic, but then I'm a Gemini so it's okay."
Jo Sullivan Loesser, who stepped from the leading lady role in The Most Happy Fella to the leading lady in Frank Loesser's life, was present and pleased with the production. "I thought it was very good, and it made a thrilling evening," she said.
"One of our greatest scores, ever," Trujillo trilled. "You can't beat it." And he played profitably with the material. "I have four favorites. Obviously, 'The Crapshooter's Dance' is one of my favorites because I get to create on these phenomenal dancers that I hired [in particular, a stunning star-turn for Tony nominee John Selya].
"I've very proud of my work in the Havana sequence just because I'm Colombian, and Latin music — salsa, mambo — it's all there in my blood. And I get a great staging opportunity with 'Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat.' It's a different approach to it."
Unsurprisingly, he's proudest of the "Runyonland" curtain-raiser, which sets the stage with an assortment of Runyonese scams and plot points. "One of the stories that we used as inspiration was 'Blood Pressure,' where the Damon character gets kidnapped by Rusty Charlie. I used horseracing and boxing because Runyon loved that. He also frequented bars — we didn't want to do speak-easies because none existed when we set the show, which was like the mid-'30s, but we used the pool halls and banks. I'm very proud because it has never been done before."
Next stop for Trujillo will be the much-anticipated musical of The Addams Family.Continued...