The Neon Lights Are Bright

Clarence Brown Theatre's Guys & Dolls is a ravishing, kinetic success

After seeing Philip Seymour Hoffmann's stunning off-Broadway production of The Little Flower of East Orange last week, I thought it a safe bet I wouldn't emerge so exhilarated from a theater for some time. But in Guys & Dolls, of course, safe bets generally prove no such thing. In Terry Silver-Alford's production of the classic gamblers' fable, now playing at the Clarence Brown, we have an immensely lovable rendition of one of the greatest American theatrical works of the 20th century, and it provides as joyful an evening as one could hope for.

Like Steven Spielberg at his best, Guys & Dolls proves that a work of art can be both entirely populist and a construction of near genius. With far more than its fair share of sparkling comedy, catchy songs, and show-stopping spectaculars, this musical has more in common with The Marriage of Figaro than with the turgid, lifeless trash with which Andrew Lloyd Webber and his ilk are soiling theaters the world over. Anyone who enjoys The Phantom of the Opera is, by definition, a moron, yet when that show's takings recently passed the $3 billion mark we were reminded once again that we're living in a world that prefers the Hummer to the Delahaye.

Guys & Dolls, however, takes us back to an era when it wasn't just cars that were allowed to have curves. Beneath Nathaniel J. Sinnott's bravura, Dick Tracy-style cityscape, the Hot Box Girls—as choreographed by Casey Sams and Lindsay Torrey—ravish their audience with routines of doe-eyed lasciviousness that would put early Britney Spears to shame. Yet these are but the frilly ribbons on our chocolate box of a night.

The University of Tennessee is currently blessed with a superabundance of female acting talent. With Rebecca Haden and Maggie Hargett lighting up the stage in the exquisite Stop Kiss at the studio space next door, Guys & Dolls is also dominated by its two leading ladies; Lena Hurt and Jessica Culaciata.

Seeing Alan Rickman on stage years ago, I was struck by the fact that not one person in the audience seemed able to take their eyes off him, this despite the cast including at least one other actor of equal fame. Here and there, Lena Hurt as Sarah Brown gives us flashes of this kind of star quality. Her infectious loveliness is most apparent in the Cuban scenes (realized so wonderfully, by the way, that even the stage hands get a spontaneous round of applause), where her giddy spin from religious zeal into drunken euphoria is a remarkable, pitch-perfect delight.

Jessica Culaciata, in her seemingly effortless performance as Miss Adelaide, the pining veteran of a 14-year engagement, shows she has a voice every bit the equal of her natural comic chops. She wrings more comedy and pathos from singing the word "neurotic" than most performers could from a one-woman show.

The men, too, are no slouches. Adam Heffernan's Nathan Detroit has all the kinetic energy of a Hanna-Barbera chase sequence. An actor not afraid to wear his intelligence lightly, Heffernan winces and shrugs his way across the stage in an inverted triangle of a suit. As ever, he is a pleasure to watch, but here his performance is strangled slightly by his hard-fought-for accent.

Todd DuBail as Sky Masterson pads across the stage with the tranquil superiority of a post-coital lion. This is a character so confident that one cannot imagine him ever thinking to put his hands in his pockets. His voice, perhaps the strongest of the company's, has an incongruous sweetness to it that is especially touching in "My Time of Day," a miniature of almost Schubertian perfection.

The production has its weaknesses. Particularly in its early numbers, the chorus sounds decidedly sheepish, and the orchestra's muddy strings sometimes overpower the horns. But one forgives the pit everything for the blistering trumpet break in the introduction to "Havana," played with all the exuberance of Maynard Ferguson trying to impress Dizzy Gillespie.

By the time you read this, the sound levels should have been balanced, and cast and musical director should have agreed on their occasional differences of tempo. We will then be the fortunate possessors of a blissful show that is perhaps the best Knoxville has seen this year. I would urge every citizen to see it at least once.