I was as excited as if I were going to a Broadway show last night when I walked two blocks to Hoboken High School to take in opening night of their excellent drama department's production of Guys and Dolls. I've seen one show there and knew to expect a lot of talent and enthusiasm on the stage and a noisy, excited audience.
I wasn't disappointed for a minute. Behind me in line were kids talking about "Big Jule," the big, tough Chicago gangster character in the show, and I could tell we were all anticipating a great evening. As I got to my seat and saw in the program that the one bit of truly non-traditional casting was that Big Jule was to be played by a girl, I worried for my friends who might not be prepared for such a choice.
The program notes made my heart sing. Director Jared Ramos wrote, "It was 13 years ago when, as a junior in high school, I received my first lead role in a musical, that of Nathan Detroit in a production of G & D staged at A.J. Demarest High School." He wisely cast the up-and-coming star Saquan Williams in the role, who, also a high school junior, is apparently serious about a career in the theatre and obviously has a shot at the big time.
I had not quite realized that, familiar as I am with Guys and Dolls, I had never seen the show on stage before. My parents, on a trip to New York in the 1950's, saw it on Broadway, and we owned a 33-RPM recording of the cast album. I knew all the songs by heart, and as the production went forward, I found myself mouthing the words of every ballad and comic number. I enjoyed the life the young actors put into their roles--it was as if they were creating the characters, not basing them on stereotypes or previous performances.
Don't forget, I grew up in Alabama, where the denizens of Runyonland were as exotic as martians. To these kids, the accents were natural and the situations were fresh and fun. Nobody had to listen to a cast album--or God forbid, watch the movie version--to grasp the scene. What emerged was a full-blown, innocent version of an American classic, in the hands of a very competent and engaging cast. Many of the boys had no stage experience, but they were cool and coordinated and had no trouble with the dance or with playing their roles.
Miss Adelaide (Kristin Santiago) had me totally convinced of her upper-respiratory problems, and in her duet with Nathan, her line "I could honestly die," she held that last note every time, bringing a poignancy to the song that Vivian Blaine completely missed. The Hot Box Girls, her back-up chorus line, were beautiful and delicious, almost overshadowing their star in their sheer joy of being where they were. They were convincing as 1950's chorus girls, dancing and singing and looking for their big break, and they were cute as kittens all the while.
Sky Masterson, as played by the smooth athlete Joshua Delgado, was sincere and cocky at the same time, and handled the love songs (and kisses) with the kind of poise rare in a 17-year-old, making us root for him from the first line of "I'll Know."
I loved Bianca Jade Alvarez as Sarah Brown, especially in "If I Were a Bell," although on opening night the song was marred by a microphone malfunction. Ricardo Cruz was a very sympathetic Arvide, delicately handling one of the prettiest songs in the show, "More I Cannot Wish You." Daniel Velez was a fine Benny Southstreet, leading a thrilling "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat"--a song I had never appreciated before. And Shannon Jones did the role of Big Jule proud, remaking it into her own.
The orchestra was full of verve and added excitement to every minute. The dance numbers created perfect stage pictures reflecting a frenetic Times-Square energy. My dark snapshot doesn't do the show justice. In addition to the professional-level choreography, the inventive sets and all the backstage functions were executed smoothly and all together contributed to a wonderful night in the theatre.
There will be matinee performances today and tomorrow at 2 and one more evening performance at 8 tonight. If you're anywhere near Hoboken, you'd be crazy to miss it.