“Guys and Dolls” is one of the most famous musicals from Broadway’s Golden Age, and it’s been performed and duplicated so many times that its plot reads almost like theatrical shorthand. It won five Tony Awards in 1951 and was made iconic after its 1955 film adaptation, which starred Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando at the apex of their popularity.
When a show is as popular and revered as “Guys and Dolls,” there’s the inclination to change, reinterpret and rework it from the ground up. But sometimes the best approach is to leave a great thing just as it is. Lake City Playhouse premieres its version of “Guys and Dolls” tonight, and Jillian Kehne, the show’s director and choreographer, says she wanted to play to the innate strengths of the story.
“This show is such a classic piece,” she said. “I know sometimes you can go into a show and think, ‘I’m going to change it up completely. Maybe we’ll put it in a different era or do it in a stylized, new way.’ But I went in wanting to preserve the classic.”
Inspired by the short stories of writer Damon Runyon, “Guys and Dolls” occupies the neon cityscapes and seedy back alleys of New York City, set to the music of Frank Loesser. The plot hinges on a wager between gamblers Sky Masterson and Nathan Detroit: Detroit, needing $1,000 to set up an illegal craps game, bets Masterson that he can’t convince Sarah Brown, a local missionary, to go on a date with him in Cuba.
Of course, the impressionable doll starts to fall for the conspiring guy – and vice versa – while Nathan continues to reject the advances of his long-term fiancée, Miss Adelaide.
“It’s the classic love story,” Kehne said. “You’ve got the comedic couple that you just love – they’re funny and quirky. Then you have the typical ingénue and leading man, and the ensemble fills it out so well. But it’s not boring and it’s not bland, because everyone is kind of Technicolor. That makes it really interesting and dynamic.”
Although the LCP production of “Guys and Dolls” faithfully follows the familiar blueprint, the cast here is slightly unexpected. Kehne said that her principal cast is slightly younger than the actors who typically fill those roles, a decision that ended up bringing a fresh perspective to characters that have been portrayed countless times before.
“They don’t necessarily fit the mold, but they’re filling it out beautifully and creating a new take on those characters,” she said, adding that they’re not necessarily adhering to the characters’ most iconic interpretations. “I think it’s helped for them to not have that weight on their shoulders. They’ve been free to bring their own interpretation and fill it with themselves to a certain degree, which makes it kind of attractive.”
“Guys and Dolls” works best as a time capsule, a jazzy look back at an era that seems simpler now. Perhaps that’s part of its appeal: It’s defined by a specific time and place, but its music, characters and themes remain timeless, and sticking to the book further emphasizes that.
“I don’t know if I went in with the idea of making it fresh and new, but I went in with making it believable, likeable and very true to form,” Kehne said. “You’ll go in expecting something, and that’s what you’re going to get.”