I wandered far afield for today’s Wall Street Journal drama column. For openers, I went to Millburn, N.J., to see the Paper Mill Playhouse‘s production of Guys and Dolls, starring Karen Ziemba as Miss Adelaide:
The Paper Mill Playhouse, which has been doing business for upwards of 60 years, is known for presenting solid musical-comedy revivals, among them a “Follies” so fine that it served as the basis for the first complete recording of Stephen Sondheim’s score. The productions usually include a sprinkling of big-leaguers, often in roles with which they’re not identified (Betty Buckley, for instance, played Mama Rose in Paper Mill’s 1998 “Gypsy”). The 1,200-seat proscenium-stage theater is comfortable and well-appointed, with a leafy courtyard that makes for agreeable intermissions, and Millburn, the small New Jersey town where the Paper Mill Playhouse is located, is easy to reach by car or train.
So what’s the catch? Beats me. This “Guys and Dolls,” which runs through July 18, is as surefire as a stacked deck. To begin with, Paper Mill is using the gaudy sets designed by Tony Walton for the 1992 Broadway revival and subsequently retooled for that production’s national tour. No sooner does the curtain rise than you find yourself grinning happily at Mr. Walton’s Day-Glo cartoons of Times Square in the long-gone days of snap-brim hats and evening papers. They instantaneously create a raffish mood that’s exactly right for a show described by its creators as “a musical fable of Broadway.”
To say that Ms. Ziemba fits in is the grossest of understatements. With her endearingly funny face and comprehensively danceworthy legs, she was born to play Adelaide, and “Guys and Dolls” makes far better use of her great talents than did her most recent Broadway outing, the stale “Never Gonna Dance.” I found Michael Mastro a notch too nebbishy as Nathan, but Robert Cuccioli and Kate Baldwin are pleasingly romantic as Sky, the dashing gambler in search of round-the-clock action, and Sarah Brown, the Salvation Army doll for whom he falls hard….
Meanwhile, back on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, I took in the Jean Cocteau Repertory‘s off-off-Broadway production of the Brecht-Weill Threepenny Opera:
Unlike “Guys and Dolls,” “The Threepenny Opera” was meant to be staged on the cheap, and this vest-pocket version is nothing if not frugal. The Bouwerie Lane Theatre–located, appropriately enough, on the Bowery, New York’s historic Skid Row–is approximately the size of a size-10 shoebox, with a stage somewhat larger than a postcard that Roman Tatarowicz, the designer, has filled with what looks suspiciously like junk from the next alley. On the other hand, what could be more suitable? “Threepenny,” after all, is a tale of the lowest of low life, and director David Fuller has made the most of the resources at hand, drawing pungent acting out of a lively cast of unknowns (I was particularly impressed with Lorinda Lisitza as Jenny, Angus Hepburn as Peachum and Stephanie Lynge as Polly).
The Cocteau is performing “Threepenny” in Marc Blitzstein’s familiar English-language adaptation, which softens some of the hacksaw-hard edges of Bertolt Brecht’s book and lyrics but has the advantage of being thoroughly singable. Mr. Fuller’s straight-from-the-shoulder staging is unostentatiously Brechtian in its directness (many of the characters enter and exit through the theater’s emergency door), and though Kurt Weill’s now-acrid, now-oily score is banged out on an upright piano of the tin-pan type, there being no room or money for additional players, even that unfortunate deficiency seems almost appropriate to the occasion….
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