Studio Tenn launches its eagerly anticipated sophomore season in its new home at the Franklin Theatre, kicking off the company's second act with a sparkling revival of one of musical theater's best-loved shows: Guys and Dolls, the "musical fable of Bradway" based on a story and characters of Damon Runyon, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows.
Directed with his trademark style and wit by company artistic director Matt Logan, Guys and Dolls represents yet another confident, beautifully conceived musical production from Studio Tenn, featuring a blend of local stage stars and Broadway veterans, epitomizing the company's pledge to utilize the best talents of the theater world to bring the very best to Middle Tennessee audiences. Led by John Hickman (as Sky Masterson) and Jared Bradshaw (as Nathan Detroit), both of whom are veterans of Jersey Boys, and who are paired with two of Music City's best-known leading ladies - Carrie Tillis (as Sarah Brown) and Laura Matula (as Miss Adelaide). The result? Logan's cast is filled with an embarrassment of riches of this city's stage talents, including the scene-stealing Patrick Waller, whose Nicely-Nicely Johnson more than holds his own with the Broadway vets.
Studio Tenn's beautiful new home at the Franklin Theatre notwithstanding, perhaps most noteworthy about this production is the superb music direction of Stephen Kummer, who leads his eight-piece orchestra (which includes some of the city's best-known players) through the show's memorable score, featuring new jazz- and big band-inspired orchestrations by Kummer that help to elevate the time-honored music to new heights. Loesser's extraordinary score has never sounded better, particularly the new takes on Act Two's "Luck Be A Lady" and the first act's "I've Never Been in Love Before," and the rollicking, gospel flavor of "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat" that gives Waller the showcase he deserves and which sent the audience's socks flying on opening night. Yet while Kummer's new orchestrations breathe new vitality into the musical pieces, they never detract from the melodies one has come to love since the musical's 1950 premiere on Broadway; instead, it simply repositions the score, if you will, for a more discerning and more demanding contemporary audience.
Micah Shepard's choreography is clever, imaginatively making use of the relatively shallow playing area of the Franklin Theatre stage and giving the gifted dancers in his cast (particularly Billy Ditty and Lauri Gregoire, two of Nashville's finest choreographers) the opportunity to strut their stuff and show us what we've been missing, while presenting a stylish visual aesthetic that dovetails nicely into director Logan's overall production design. Logan's practiced eye delivers a visually compelling show, making use of creative and colorful projections to convey the setting of each of the scenes, intelligently avoiding the urge to clutter up the stage with too many set pieces and props. Tony Williams' lighting design is well-conceived and beautifully realized, adding to the atmospheric trappings of the production (his lighting of the after-midnight world of Guys and Dolls is particularly effective).
While Waller clearly steals the show out from under the principals (Don't believe me? You should have heard the thunderous applause that greeted him during the curtain call!), thanks to his remarkable performance of "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat," which with the able assistance of the entire ensemble allows him to cart off the entire production lock, stock and barrel - he really is just the icing on the cake that's served up by the creative team in Guys and Dolls.