Nestled between The Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea and Performance Network Theatre in Ann Arbor sits a rather unique venue with a name that explains why it makes total sense to open in a market dominated by two highly regarded institutions that concentrate on comedies and dramas: The Encore Musical Theatre Company. With packed houses throughout its inaugural outing this past February and its subsequent decision to expand the runs of its shows from two weekends to three, the Dexter-based theater has quickly carved a niche for itself by offering entertainment-hungry theatergoers a slate of great musicals of the past and present. Its sophomore production, “Guys and Dolls,” certainly fits that mold, as experts call the 1951 Tony Award-winner “the greatest American musical comedy” ever written.
And while Encore’s entertaining production isn’t the most memorable interpretation of the Frank Loesser musical I’ve ever seen, a mix of fantastic voices, a handful of standout performances and the infectious energy exuded by the entire cast translated into an overall satisfying first experience with the theater this past Saturday night.
The plot, based upon two short stories by Damon Runyon and accompanied by some of the most memorable tunes ever written for the stage, follows two New York City gamblers as they fight the urge to take the biggest bet of all: marriage. Nathan Detroit (Tobin Hissong) – engaged for the past 14 years to nightclub performer Miss Adelaide (Holly Davis) – issues high roller Sky Masterson (Paul Jason Green) a challenge he believes he can’t possibly lose: Sky must take straight-and-narrow missionary worker Sarah Brown (Thalia Schramm) on a dinner date to Cuba, or lose the bet and $1,000. In the meantime, Nathan can’t find a spot for his illegal games, Adelaide is getting tired of his excuses and lies, and Sarah’s mission is failing to attract sinners and might be shut down by her visiting superior.
In many productions of “Guys and Dolls,” Runyon’s New York is populated by colorful characters with stereotypical Brooklyn, Bronx and Irish accents. Wisely, director and choreographer Barbara F. Cullen mostly abandons that tradition, as accents poorly or inconsistently delivered can seriously detract from an otherwise excellent production. In fact, Cullen has re-imagined much about the show and its characters, most of which work quite well in Encore’s intimate space. Sky, usually portrayed as a larger-than-life man-about-town, for example, is far more pensive and down-to-earth than usual, while Adelaide is not the ditsy blond she’s often made out to be.
Instead, Cullen and her actors dig deep into the lyrics and dialogue, which allows them to explore and have fun with every nuance they can find. That’s most noticeable in “Adelaide’s Lament” and “Adelaide’s Second Lament,” both of which are show high points, thanks to Davis’ insightful character work and a gorgeous voice. Another is “Sue Me” with Hissong, who creates a thoroughly believable and likable Nathan from start to finish.
Green’s laid-back, eyes-reveal-all performance also serves the production well. So too does his sweet, gentle voice.
Other fine work is presented by Schramm, Steve DeBruyne as Benny Southstreet (whose powers of concentration and focus on stage are astounding) and Jeff Steinhauer, who as Nicely-Nicely Johnson almost steals the show in “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.”
Acting abilities among some of the other cast members, however, range from barely passable on a professional level to better than adequate – a problem that will haunt future Encore productions as long as it draws a significant number of performers from area community theaters. Sure, it helps keep the budget to a reasonable level – large-cast musicals ARE very expensive to produce – but a professional theater that mixes professional union and non-union actors with non-professionals is almost always asking for trouble (and less-than-stellar reviews), as differences in training, skills and experience quickly become apparent. And those gaps are very noticeable in this production, despite the enthusiasm and energy displayed by every cast member in the show.
Cullen’s no-frills choreography – which is well-executed by the entire cast – makes great use of the intimate stage, thanks in no small part to the multiple levels of the impressive set designed by Sally Converse-Doucette.
Dan Fowler’s lighting is generally fine, but problems exist when the spotlight shines on anyone located on the top level of the set. (Large shadows are created by lighting instruments between the spotlight and the actors.)
And Colleen Meyer’s costumes are somewhat schizophrenic: Some appear as if they’re cut from a 1940s issue of Life or the Saturday Evening Post – and appropriately so, given the director’s concept of the show – while others, with their day-glo colors, look fresh from the Ringling Brothers’ clown corp.
‘Guys and Dolls’
The Encore Musical Theatre, 3216 Broad St., Dexter. Thursday-Sunday through April 19 (except Easter Sunday, April 12). $28. 734-268-6200. http://www.theencoretheatre.org.