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Tricked Up and Dumbed Down

Guys and Dolls an early turkey

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It's been a fabulous couple of weeks at the Performing Arts Center. Upstairs at the Booth Playhouse, Charlotte Rep has launched a snappy production of Donald Margulies' insightful Pulitzer Prize winner, Dinner With Friends. Down in Belk Theater, we've seen a cavalcade of stars: renowned clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, trumpet giant Wynton Marsalis, and a visit from the Hong Kong Ballet on their current North American tour. Kudos go to the PAC's czarina of culture, Judith Allen, for Wynton's frequent flights to Charlotte and for landing Hong Kong's stunning re-imagining of The Last Emperor. Hopefully there were some scouts on hand from North Carolina Dance Theatre to behold the marvelously atmospheric choreography of Wayne Eagling -- and his resourceful storytelling.

The dynamic use of Liu Yuan Sheng's set design meshed beautifully with Tommy Wong's lighting, and Su Cong's original music was a journey all by itself. Among the huge cast, Frankie-m Lai as the adult Emperor and Ivy Chung as the Japanese Spy were the most eye-catching.

If some of the NCDT troupe did peep in, I'll bet they weren't intimidated by the training or the virtuosity of the Honk Kong contingent. But I'm sure they were as enchanted as I was.

Count Emperor as a Judith Allen coup whether or not the house was sold out. A week later, she counted another, standing in for newly re-elected Mayor Pat McCrory on opening night of Guys and Dolls. Reading out an official proclamation, the Mayor Judy declared November 13th "Charles Randolph-Wright Day" in honor of the Broadway-bound production's director, a native of York, SC.

Well, you can be certain the house was sold out this time, brimming with family, friends, and fans of one of America's greatest musicals. Sad to say, the product wasn't nearly as glorious as the homecoming.

The name of Maurice Hines was printed above the title of the show in our programs -- in larger type -- a clear warning of problems to come. Showcasing the loose-limbed dancing talents of Hines was paramount. There was less confidence in the wonderfully flavorful Jo Swerling/Abe Burrows book than in the hyper-mugging of the star. Frank Loesser's immortal music and lyrics were often buried in an avalanche of percussion.

As the evening unfolded, it seemed less likely that Randolph-Wright had picked Hines to play Nathan Detroit than Hanes had picked Randolph-Wright to play director. Hines gets only slightly closer to Nathan Detroit than the Fat Albert cartoons that haunted Saturday morning TV a couple of decades back. His double-jointed portrayal, in fact, can best be described as Skinny Albert. To make matters worse, Hines's Detroit is the soul of subtlety compared to Alexandra Foucard's new millennium version of Miss Adelaide.

Entering the Belk with a longstanding fondness for this musical paean to Damon Runyan, I found song after song tricked up, dumbed down, and sapped of all nuance. Over the radio, Hines said he had to be told to "bring in" his original over-the-top version of Nathan that was recorded in Buffalo. One can only imagine that atrocity, as the Charlotte version was still super-sized and noxious. Hines seemed to incorporate at least three arm movements and two outlandish grimaces into every sentence he uttered.

The silence that greeted the nuclear mugging of "Sue Me" was deafening. Here were Hines flailing away at double his usual intensity and Foucard channeling each syllable she spoke through her sinuses -- and adding extras to many of the words-uh. Until Hines finally crossed his eyes in desperation, there was nary a titter.

The design concept was every bit as brainless. We open -- don't ask me why -- with an AM broadcast of "Theme from A Summer Place" and Prez Prado's "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White," clear signposts of the 50s. Then all the guys enter with garish colors, wide lapels, and stripes like some zooty stage adaptation of the Dick Tracy movie. Sets by Norbert Kolb and lighting by Michael Gilliam were the only design bright spots -- the sewer setting for the climactic crap game was particularly arresting -- but even these artists will need more budget if they expect to electrify Broadway.

Ironically, it's when megastar Hines is safely removed from the spotlight that Randolph-Wright proves decisively that he can direct. When Sky Masterson, far upstage, turns on his cronies and announces his willingness to bet his soul on a single pass of the dice, I felt a delicious chill on my neck and had to catch my breath.

Scenes between Brian Sutherland as Sky and real-life spouse Diane Sutherland as demure Salvation Army preacher Sarah Brown had a sincerity and spontaneity sorely lacking elsewhere. The beautiful blending of their voices on "I've Never Been in Love Before" ended Act I on a high note, and the magic of Sky's "Luck Be a Lady" stood out in bold relief against the "Sue Me" fiasco that followed.

Tad Ingram had a welcome simplicity as Salvation Army patriarch Arvide Anderson, and Clent Bowers, whose brilliance shone brightly in Charlotte Rep's Blackbirds of Broadway two seasons ago, was hardly less dazzling as Nicely-Nicely Johnson leading the ecstatic "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat."

Tickled pink to get this show prior to Broadway, the Charlotte audience sprang to its feet and lavished thunderous applause on this gaudy turkey. Gotham theater critics won't be gobbling it up with nearly the same relish. *

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