‘Guys and Dolls’ brings Jazz Age New York City to the Power Center

Monday, April 11, 2016 - 2:08pm

As the world celebrates Frank Sinatra’s centennial, songs, tribute concerts and even figure skating routines paying homage to the beloved Rat Pack member are everywhere. But the School of Music, Theatre and Dance’s nod to the legendary crooner comes in a different form altogether. This weekend, the Power Center will usher audiences into a different era, where the bright lights and shadowy side streets of New York City give way to Prohibition-era Cuba, swaying with Jazz Age rhythms.

After taking on “American Idiot” last fall, the musical theater program was ready for a blast from the past.

“We wanted to do something with more traditional musical theater to balance it,” said director Mark Madama, an associate professor of music. “It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be colorful. It’s going to be exciting.”

The classic musical showcases Sinatra’s talents alongside those of Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons in its 1955 film version, but the show’s real origin lies a little earlier, in 1950, when it debuted on Broadway. “Guys and Dolls” charmed audiences and swept the Tony Awards, worming its way into the American zeitgeist in a way few cultural phenomena ever do.

Its vivid portrayal of the seedy underbelly of New York City has inspired countless imitations and riffs. It popularized the multi-ethnic slang of this colorful era in Manhattan, bringing words like “fly-by-night” (a short-lived romance) and “the heat” (the police) into popular consciousness. So deeply is “Guys and Dolls” intertwined with American culture that if you’re ever near Detroit, you can stop by Little Guys and Dolls Preschool on Six Mile Road. One can’t help but imagine tap-dancing toddlers playing craps or maybe a couple of kindergarteners placing bets at the races.

The spirited world of “Guys and Dolls” will be on full display at the Power Center thanks to set designer Edward Morris, an alumnus who has worked all over show business since his time at the University of Michigan. The click-clack of tap shoes will echo through the theater as the set flashes and shimmers with an overwhelming profusion of neon signs that has rendered the stage almost unrecognizable — a bustling metropolis in the middle of a college town.

One of the show’s many unexpected delights is the high-quality writing — in addition to captivating musical numbers, the show packs jokes and references slung at the audience as rapid-fire as a sawed-off shotgun in a Havana alleyway. The script was so well-received that it nearly won the 1951 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Sadly, writer Abe Burrows was under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee, an investigative Congressional committee whose activities during the time mirrored then-U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist push. That push ruined many a career in media. Burrows continued to write, but his Pulitzer aspirations were dashed forever. His script for “Guys and Dolls,” however, remains one of the best in the business.

“I love the idea of doing a traditional musical comedy that has a great book,” Madama said.

Before television took off in a big way in the late 1950s and variety shows began to dominate the airwaves, Broadway musicals were an outlet for some of show business’s most talented writers. Dialogue was snappy and inventive, leaving performers plenty of wiggle room to bring life to their characters.

“Every character that gets played by a different person brings a different interpretation to that character,” Madama said. “They have to bring their own personality.”

From salsa to tap, romantic duets to an athletic “crapshooter’s ballet,” “Guys and Dolls” is as engaging, relevant and just plain funny today as it was when the Chairman of the Board held court at the Rainbow Room.