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!
By the time the whole cast regrouped on stage for a final, determined assault on the senses, a light snow was falling outside, extending a magical feeling for first-nighters, who then trudged gingerly down Broadway for five blocks to the party site, Gotham Hall, a savings bank now functioning as a lavish party space.
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.
[flipbook] Trujillo said he choreographed in the upper register of euphoria because of Loesser's songs — a veritable forest of glistening evergreens ("I'll Know," "Fugue for Tinhorns," "If I Were a Bell," "I've Never Been in Love Before," "Luck Be a Lady").
"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.
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Even if Sky is not as high on the marquee as he usually is, Bierko (The Music Man) knows a star spot when he has one and is savoring the moment, but, he cautioned, "It's very hard work. You gotta learn to drive the Ferrari that these people built 60 years ago, but, once you get her out on the road and open her up — My God, it's fun. If it seems easy, it's because Des, Sergio and Ted [Sperling] help us enormously."
He gave a special bow in the direction of his leading lady, too. "I'm working opposite a brilliant actress. If I talk to her and keep my eyes on her, I'm fine. Anytime I wander away from that and try to do something, that's when I get nervous. All I have to do is talk to Kate Jennings Grant, and I'm fine. Oh my God, she's so talented."
Since her arrival in New York theatre as the vulnerable young war-widow in Summer of '42, Grant has had the image of an ethereal person whom the audience loves to see "let go" — and that's Sarah Brown, the self-professed "mission doll," to a T. "It's so fun to be so buttoned up at the beginning and then let it rip in Havana," the actress admitted. "Sarah is a complicated woman. People tend to think it's a boring part or she's afraid, and I always think of her as a complicated, passionate woman who has great faith and great passion. This is the day they collide, so I think it's a fantastic journey. I think she has developed a sense of humor about herself and that she loses control over her life. The control freak in me is learning a lot playing her."
She gave her director his due. "The best thing Des did for me was to make me feel, as a relatively unknown actress, I deserved this part, that I earned it. He took me aside on Day One and held me in his arms and said, 'You deserve to be here.' And, oh, it was the greatest gift. Throughout rehearsal, he took time to tell actors when something is working. So many times, directors only talk to you when it's not, and he just made me feel confident. That's half the battle for any actor, I think."
Casting helps a lot, too. Lauren Graham, who plays the single mother on TV's "Gilmore Girls," is making her Broadway debut here as Miss Adelaide, "the well-known fiancée" (for 14 years) of good old less-than-reliable Nathan Detroit. "The TV show was such an important thing in my life," she said, "but I don't relate to it as much as, maybe, people who are still watching it do. I really relate to Adelaide, and I thought a lot about her. She's very truthful and very funny."
Graham's Adelaide is less adenoidal and Brooklynese than the original (Vivian Blaine) and the most recent (Tony-winning Faith Prince) — neither of whom she saw — but she found some new laughs. "I don't think about it as finding laughs, but I do think about it as finding a character. This was totally new, and I feel very proud about that. There are musicals I am familiar with, and this is not one of them so I felt I could just kinda approach it the way I wanted to and not be haunted by somebody else. With a great piece of literature, you can always reinterpret it. I really believe this is a masterpiece. As we started to work on it, I just thought, like, 'This writing — it's so modern — and it really stands up.' I think there are laughs today just as they were originally. I don't know if that's good or bad for men and women, but it's true."
Tituss Burgess continues his show-stopping streak on Broadway, first with the Oscar-winning "Under the Sea" in The Little Mermaid and now with that rousing mock-revival number, "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat," measuring up to other Nicely-Nicely Johnsons (Stubby Kaye, Ken Page, Walter Bobbie) nicely-nicely indeed. "The thing I like most about the character is that when he says 'Nicely-nicely,' he means it. Everything is just nicely-nicely, thank you very much."
Gregory Rush, bracing to make his entrance in Exit the King this month at the Barrymore ("We're about to go into tech week, and we preview next weekend"), pleaded no relation to the mission doll played by Jessica Rush. Not only that, there are a rush of Rushes on Broadway at the moment — three by his count, Deborah Rush in Blithe Spirit being the third. "The only Rush I ever knew of was Barbara Rush. I met her four years ago. I remember her from scary movies in the '50s."
Giving proper glitz to this Broadway return of Guys and Dolls: Ben Vereen (who says his next career move will be a musical Pope Joan, co-directed by Michael Butler: "We'll take it to Europe first, then back here"), Matthew Broderick (who starts turning into The Philanthropist March 10 for Roundabout), columnist Roger Friedman, Becky Ann and Dylan Baker (a summer-stock Adelaide and a Brandy Bottle Bates, now both of TV's "Kings"), Jerry Zaks (who directed a brain-burning brilliant Guys and Dolls in 1992), Jack Noseworthy (bound for the big screen in an unruly Bruce Willis romp called "Surrogates"), Kevin Bacon (who had co-starred with Platt in "Frost/Nixon" and "Flatliners") and wife Kyra Sedgwick, director Doug Hughes (who's starting up David Mamet's Oleanna with Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles next month at the Taper in L.A. — and then, maybe, New York: "Stranger things have happened!"), Mariska Hargitay and Talk Radio's Peter Hermann, director Gary Griffin (who recently helmed Music in the Air for Encores! and will next direct an all-English, Trujillo-choreographed West Side Story at McAnuff's Stratford Festival), Constantine Maroulis (deep into Broadway's upcoming Rock of Ages), Valerie Harper (heading for Washington's Arena Stage in May and, likely, Broadway in the fall as Tallulah Bankhead in Looped), Cheyenne Jackson (Woody in Encores!'s next, Finian's Rainbow), Victoria Clark (prepping The Firebrand of Florence for a one-nighter at Alice Tully Hall on March 12, then trooping off to Durham to film a Horton Foote screenplay, "Mean Street," for director John Doyle), S. Epatha Merkerson, The Dodgers' Michael David and Lauren Mitchell, Next to Normal's Alice Ripley, producer Marty Richards, Exit the King's Andrea Martin, WOR's Joan Hamburg (trumpeting the new flick of her writer-director son, John, "I Love You, Man," due March 20: "It's funny!" sez Mom), Judy Kuhn (a high-school Adelaine), Biff Liff and an "Ugly Betty" trio: Eric Maibus, Anna Ortiz and Mark Indelicato.