Brimming with gamblers, gangsters, showgirls and soul-savers, the bustling world of the Broadway classic Guys and Dolls has come to life this season at Live Arts. Based on short stories by Damon Runyon, with music and lyrics written by Frank Loesser, this legendary production debuted in 1951 and won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It left its cinematic mark in 1955, when it was adapted into a film starring Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Frank Sinatra and Vivian Blaine.
The story follows two unlikely duos: a high-stakes gambler and a puritanical missionary, and a crap game manager and a nightclub singer trying to make good. Feeling the heat from the police, Nathan Detroit is trying to find a spot to host his illegal crap game. To complicate matters, his fiancé of 14 years, a showgirl named Miss Adelaide, wants him to go straight and finally tie the knot. Instead, Nathan continues plotting and bets big-roller Sky Masterson that Sky can’t get the “doll” of Nathan’s choosing to go to Havana, Cuba, with him on a date. Sky agrees and Nathan chooses Evangelist Sergeant Sarah Brown of the Save-a-Soul Mission, figuring she would be impossible to convince. In order to sway Sarah, Sky pretends that he wants to reform and promises he will bring a dozen sinners to the mission in exchange for her company in Havana. With the mission dwindling due to lack of participation, Sarah takes Sky up on his offer. What unfolds is a romantic comedy that jets from the underbelly of New York to the nightclubs of Havana and back again.
This rollicking production boasts some of the most famous tunes on Broadway. To tackle the lead role of Sergeant Sarah Brown, Live Arts cast Charlottesville newcomer Natalee McReynolds. McReynolds earned her master’s degree in vocal performance at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. With a background in opera and musical theater, she has performed in major productions such as The Secret Garden and Sweeney Todd, and Guys and Dolls marks McReynolds’ first production in Virginia.
“I tend to play kind of the vanilla characters and [Sarah] certainly fits that mold,” McReynolds says. “And some people would see that as a curse, but I actually like it quite a bit because I can get in there and find the vanilla character and do something to make her spicy, make her a little bit more alive and more human.”
During casting, McReynolds watched YouTube clips of high school productions and parts of the feature film to prep for her callback. Overall, though, she didn’t pay too much attention to other adaptations. She wanted to present her own take on the well-known role.
“I don’t particularly like watching other actresses do the whole role because I don’t want to take any of those things on myself,” says McReynolds. “I’d rather start from scratch and come up with my own kind of material.”
While the characters were written in the 1930s, the music was written in the 1950s, which is when the show takes place. Directed by Ray Nedzel, the Live Arts production of Guys and Dolls aims to stay true to the original, while incorporating an approach that makes sense today.
“There’s a song towards the end in which the two female leads sing ‘Marry the Man Today,’ and typically in productions, they sing that song basically to say, ‘Well, what else can we do but just get married?’” McReynolds says. “So [Ray] twisted that song to mean more like, not ‘We have nothing better to do,’ but, ‘You know what? We’re in control of this situation and they need us and we’re going to marry them because we love them.’ …We’ve been flexible on certain aspects that might come across as negative if they were presented in 2016.”
This intimate production makes use of the theater’s thrust stage, meaning the audience is seated around three sides, not just out front. While specific details about the set remain under wraps (you’ll have to buy a ticket for the full effect), it’s clear that the set was a central component to the overall vision of the performance.
“There was a lot of thought and a lot of energy and a lot of time put into the set,” says McReynolds. “Otherwise, we keep the stage pretty bare. We use chairs to suggest a bench or we’ll use a table, but there aren’t any big set pieces.”
This method is driven by Live Arts’ philosophy that the actors guide the narrative.
“There are minimal props,” McReynolds says. “We don’t mime anything. If we have coffee, we’re drinking out of coffee cups, but it’s not elaborate by any means. It’s very stripped down to the actors telling the story.”