‘Guys and Dolls’ at Kennedy Center is everything a musical should be

Featuring Broadway stunners James Monroe Iglehart, Jessie Mueller, Steven Pasquale, and Phillipa Soo, this production is one safe bet.

Frothy as a coupe of champagne and brimming with beloved tunes, Guys and Dolls is almost always a crowd-pleaser. Layer on the stellar cast and awesome production values of the Kennedy Center’s current offering and you’ve got a near-perfect musical.

The show’s only problem may be that it sold out before it even opened.

James Monroe Iglehart and Company in ‘Guys and Dolls.’ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Guys and Dolls opens the fourth season of the Kennedy Center’s Broadway Center Stage program, which brings top-tier Broadway talent to Washington, DC, for short-run revivals of classic musicals. While previous Broadway Center Stage productions were billed as “semi-staged” productions, Guys and Dolls ups the ante as the first fully staged musical in the series. Indeed, this production is so streamlined and slick — featuring a 22-piece onstage band, intricate dance numbers, and floor-to-ceiling projections — it is hard to fathom that it was brought to life after a mere two weeks of rehearsals.

Guys and Dolls famously tells the overlapping stories of loveable gambler Nathan Detroit, who gets cold feet every time he’s near an altar, and suave Sky Masterson, who insists he will never fall in love. Sure, we could complain that the plot is antiquated (Miss Adelaide’s sole ambition is to marry Nathan, to whom she has been engaged for 14 years, while the slick Sky starts courting Sarah Brown as part of a bet) or we could just sit back and enjoy the brilliance of Frank Loesser’s score in the hands of Broadway’s best and brightest. I vote for the latter.

Let’s begin with the ladies, because while the entire cast is brilliant, Jessie Mueller, as Hot Box dancer Miss Adelaide, and Phillipa Soo, as Christian mission worker Sarah Brown, are the pillars of talent that everything else in this production radiates from.

While Mueller’s performance as Miss Adelaide is notable for her stellar vocals on crowd-pleasing numbers including “A Bushel and a Peck” and “Adelaide’s Lament,” what sealed the deal for me was the nuance Mueller brought to what could have been a one-dimensional comic character. In Mueller’s hands, Miss Adelaide goes through a bevy of emotions. She is one tough cookie and, by golly, we want her to have her happily ever after. And what a treat to see Mueller, who earned great acclaim for playing dramatic leads in Beautiful and Waitress, fully unleash her comedic side. (Guys and Dolls director Marc Bruni, incidentally, also directed Mueller in the Broadway production of Beautiful.)

Jessie Mueller and Phillipa Soo in ‘Guys and Dolls.’ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Soo brought similar nuance to the role of mission worker Sarah Brown. Soo’s easy, lilting soprano is a joy in the classic tunes “I’ll Know” and “If I Were a Bell,” and she gracefully shifts from prim churchgoer (Mara Blumenfeld’s missionary costumes help keep her buttoned up) to young woman experiencing her first love — and her first taste of Bacardi — in the “Havana” scene.

Soo and Pasquale — who are married in real life — display palpable chemistry in their dialogue and their duets, especially the ballad “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” which brought down the Act I curtain to thunderous applause. As the smooth-talking Sky Masteron, Pasquale is irresistible with a noir-esque fedora and sardonic delivery of lines laced with gambling metaphors. His rumbling tenor seems tailor-made for wooing Miss Sarah and for Sky Masterson’s signature tune “Luck Be a Lady.”

James Monroe Iglehart rounds out the quartet as Adelaide’s perpetual fiance Nathan Detroit. While Iglehart’s performance was technically flawless and his “Sue Me” duet with Mueller divine, his character seemed to be the least developed of the four, and I missed the comedic swagger that won him a Tony for his performance as the Genie in Aladdin. (Fun fact: the lead role of Nathan Detroit has only one song (“Sue Me”) in the show. Why? Because when show creators were working on the original 1950 musical, the role of Nathan Detroit had already been assigned to Same Levene, who was considered perfect for the role… except for the fact that he couldn’t sing.)

Of the supporting cast (and boy, what a supporting cast!), Kevin Chamberlin wins my vote for best featured actor as Nicely Nicely Johnson, the cheerful gambler. He is priceless in every scene and one of those character actors who can elicit laughter simply through a well-timed bulge of his eyes or quiver of his jowls. At the performance I attended, Chamberlain (and the rest of the cast) received a spontaneous mid-show standing ovation after performing the barn-burning 11 o’clock number “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat.”

Kevin Chamberlin and the cast of ‘Guys and Dolls.’ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

And speaking of character actors, Rachel Dratch will no doubt have her own throng of fans in the audience. The diminutive Saturday Night Live alumn, fresh off her first Tony nomination for Broadway’s POTUS, plays hilariously against type as the gambler-to-intimidate-all-gamblers Big Jule. Sporting a pencil mustache and a black-and-white striped zoot suit, Dratch doesn’t even need to speak to elicit laughter. The arch of her eyebrow is enough. Her role is small through much of Act I, but she enjoys one hilarious scene in Act II and joins the other gangsters in several glorious ensemble numbers.

Choreographer Denis Jones has put together some truly stunning dance sequences for the production’s large and talented ensemble. “The Crapshooters Dance,” the most intricately choreographed number in the show, was such a showstopper that it threatened to overshadow “Luck Be a Lady,” one of the show’s most well-known songs, which has the misfortune to come in the wake of the outsized dance number.

Director Marc Bruni wisely chose to work with the orchestrations (by Michael Starobin) created for the 1992 Tony Award-winning revival of Guys and Dolls, which revised elements of the 1950 original. The band, conducted by Kevin Stites, brought the orchestrations to glorious life from two bandstands placed just behind the action.

All that to say: wow. If you have already scored a ticket to this all-too-brief revival, count yourself lucky. If not, well, there are two other productions planned for this season’s Broadway Center Stage series (Sunset Boulevard and Kiss of the Spiderwoman). It’s a sure bet that they will be winners too.

Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes including one 15-minute intermission.

Broadway Center Stage: Guys and Dolls plays through October 16, 2022, at The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($59–$299) are available at the box office, online, or by calling (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.

The Guys and Dolls program is online here.

COVID Safety: Masks are required for all patrons inside all theaters during performances at the Kennedy Center unless actively eating or drinking for events through October 17, 2022. Beginning October 18, 2022 masks are optional. If you prefer to wear a mask, you are welcome to do so. Kennedy Center’s complete COVID Safety Plan is here.


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