For the past 15 years, Muscatine's New Era Lutheran Church has staged an annual musical fundraiser, and I was moved to catch this year's offering for two (or rather, three) reasons: the casting of Jason Platt and Tracy Pelzer-Timm - two of our area's most entertaining character actors - in leading roles, and New Era's decision to produce Guys & Dolls, my all-time favorite musical, and certainly the least intimidating Great Musical ever written. Even at its worst, I reasoned, it would likely be a night well spent.
Well, not only was Friday's evening a night well spent, but that "even at its worst" wound up being a complete non-issue. From the opening strains of Frank Loesser's ingenious score - played here by music director Anita Zahniser's gifted eight-person orchestra - to the rousing (and impressively speedy) curtain call, director Bill Turner's Guys & Dolls is an absolute delight, charming and hilarious and, in the group numbers especially, forcefully and beautifully sung.
Of course, given this material, an audience's enjoyment is practically baked right in. The tuneful and lyrically exhilarating songs, the witty jokes that pop like firecrackers, the mismatched romance between hustler Sky Masterson and soul-saving Sarah Brown, the exquisitely matched romance between chronic bachelor Nathan Detroit and long-suffering chanteuse Miss Adelaide, the ensemble of outsize, Damon Runyon-inspired gamblers, showgirls, and missionaries - Guys & Dolls is widely considered the perfect American musical, and for good reason: It's perfect.
Yet one of the show's many glories is that it can be perfect in so many different ways. Actors have routinely triumphed in Guys & Dolls, but unlike with, say, the King of Siam in The King & I or Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors, there are no culturally "definitive" takes on the figures in Loesser's musical, so performers can assume the roles of Sky, Nathan, Adelaide, et al., without feeling even slightly beholden to previous, overly familiar interpretations. The characters in Guys & Dolls are wonderfully specific Broadway "types," yet also comically expansive and multifaceted enough that imaginative actors - and there are a bunch on-hand in New Era's presentation - are free to run wild with them.
Platt possesses a unique quality among area performers, in that despite undertaking a dizzying diversity of parts - recently, he's played Misery's Paul Sheldon, Angels in America's Belize, and Anything Goes' Moonface Martin - he always seems flawlessly cast. Fashioning entirely new temperaments and physicalities, Platt connects so fully with his characters that there seems to be no separation between actor and role, and his Nathan is a positively joyful invention: an antsy, easily aggrieved huckster who's utterly incredulous at the lunacy surrounding him, and the lunacy that he, himself, initiates. (Platt's slow burns are blistering.) His comic timing and expressions are priceless, yet somehow, Platt also locates the wounded heart in Nathan - the character is jokey, but never a joke.
And he's especially fine opposite Pelzer-Timm, who creates a rich, womanly, and deliriously goofy Adelaide. With a honking accent - she pronounces "Nathan" as "Na' 'n" - that slides into deliberately exaggerated hauteur whenever she's particularly irked, Pelzer-Timm's tragically single starlet is a high-comic kick, and fantastically soulful, to boot; her Act II reprise of "Adelaide's Lament" is enough to make you giggle and well up in equal measure. (On Friday, Pelzer-Timm also pulled off a brilliantly smart, hysterical ad lib, after noticing the pot holder her pals had given Adelaide as a wedding-shower gift. "Oh!" she gushed. "Miniature blanket!")
All throughout New Era's Guys & Dolls, you'll find actors who continually surprise you with their subtlety and cleverness: Adam Peters, whose ultra-confident, smoothly sung Sky is graced with lovely undercurrents of regret; Jenni Boldt, a divine soprano who morphs, briefly, into an enticingly silly drunk; Jon Carlson and David Wettach, who deliver understated comic turns and proceed to wow you with gorgeously resonant vocals; Chris Weber, Nick Oswald, Bonnie Marburger, and Robert Minder, each of whom provides an explosive burst of personality. Yet in this Guys & Dolls, even the show's most peripheral figures display sensational actorly instincts - Courtney Gevaert has only two or three lines, and still scores a major belly laugh with a marvelously delivered lost-earring gag.
Friday's opening-night performance wasn't faultless. There were a few dropped lyrics and some oddly wandering spotlight effects, and there appeared to be some confusion about when the curtains should and should not have opened. (Oh, and an audience member's cell phone rang. For quite a while. Damn it.) Yet the gaffes barely mattered; New Era's Guys & Dolls exudes such sweetness of spirit, and boasts so much natural talent, that it's all but irresistible. I watched the show's 21 performers and couldn't pinpoint even one who didn't seem to be having a great time. I'm guessing if I reversed my view of the proceedings, and viewed the audience from the stage, I could probably say the same thing.
The New Era Community Building is located at 3455 New Era Road in rural Muscatine. For Guys & Dolls tickets and information, call (563)263-5255 or (563)263-0881.