Comedy Collection

From Baltimore to Bullshot, Tucson has a lot to offer guys and dolls looking for a new theater show.

Fascists, whores and compulsive gamblers are running amok in Tucson.

No, the fight over the transportation ballot propositions hasn't revived; it's the height of the fall theater season.

Although Arizona Theatre Company has packed up Talley's Folly and moved it to Phoenix, and Green Thursday has retired its short but redeeming run of The Anger Box, three other companies have opened shows in the past week. Each is essentially a comedy and has something to offer, but the most satisfying work comes from the youngest, greenest performers.

STUDENT PRODUCTIONS CAN be a crapshoot, but the UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre, in my experience, has never rolled snake eyes, and its current production of the musical Guys and Dolls is an absolute winner. No, it's more than that; it's absolutely the best theatrical entertainment in town.

And that's not making allowances for the fact that the performers are mostly graduate students. On an absolute scale, this production meets full professional standards. Almost all the acting and singing equals or surpasses the touring version of 42nd Street that hit town a few weeks ago. Marsha Bagwell's stage direction is lively, detailed and perceptive, and Jason Leo Curley leads a crack pit (actually, offstage) band, even if the strings are synthesized. With splendid costumes, simple but effective sets, apt lighting and a sound design so good you don't even think about it, every last element of this show comes together marvelously.

And even though Guys and Dolls is about 50 years old, the book, lyrics and music remain entirely loveable. The story probes no depths; the characters are fairly broad; and even if you've never seen the show, you know exactly how it's going to end. But writers Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows and composer-lyricist Frank Loesser, drawing on tales of Damon Runyon, haven't set themselves up for latter-day derision. All the characters are flawed and the object of affectionate humor, but there's nothing mean or demeaning about anyone--not the women, the minorities (there aren't any, except in one harmless Cuban scene), the soul savers or the Broadway lowlifes. The dialog remains sharp; the jokes are still funny; and some of the musical numbers are classics, including the Sinatra standard "Luck Be a Lady," the "Fugue for Tinhorns" and even the novelty song "A Bushel and a Peck."

Here's the situation: Nathan Detroit, who operates the "oldest established permanent crap game in New York," needs to raise dough to secure a place for his next soirée. So he makes what he thinks will be a sure bet with high roller Sky Masterson: that the debonair Sky won't be able to sweep the next girl (or, to use the vernacular, "doll") he meets off her feet and whisk her to an evening in Havana. Especially since that next doll is the prim Sarah Brown, who runs a Salvation Army-type mission just off Times Square.

Meanwhile, Nathan has doll trouble of his own; he's been engaged to Adelaide, a risqué singer at the Hot Box Club, for 14 years, and Adelaide is pressuring him to give up gambling and lay his money down on a wedding ring. Colorful secondary characters abound.

Director Bagwell has wisely moved the story from the 1950s back to Runyon's 1930s, where it seems much more natural. Bagwell makes superb use of the stage and the people on it; something detailed and interesting is always happening off to the side, providing visual and comedic rhythm to support but not distract from the principal players.

You know this is going to be a first-rate show right from the beginning, when the curtain rises on the "Fugue for Tinhorns." Ethan Goldman, Joey Snider and Brian Wertz have just the right balance of cockiness and control, and they bring off the trio like old pros. No, like young pros. Guys and Dolls celebrates the foibles of adults who've never quite grown up, and these three guys set the tone perfectly.

Luckily, that's not the last we see of Goldman, whose Nicely-Nicely Johnson may be only a secondary character, but is riveting on every appearance. Goldman's singing and acting are beautifully timed, and with every line, while remaining strictly in character, Goldman exudes a rare joy in performance.

Same goes for Sarah Spigelman's Adelaide, who is kooky and a little shrill but also savvy, self-aware and deeply sympathetic. Between her two main numbers--"A Bushel and a Peck" and "Adelaide's Lament"--and Goldman and company's show-stopping "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat," you've already gotten full value from your theater ticket.

As Sky Masterson, Benjamin Crawford is tall, dark, handsome and suave, though perhaps not quite as well-oiled as he could be. Tucson audiences will surely see him as a next-generation Armen Dirtadian. And if Trisha Hart Ditsworth's Sarah Brown initially seems a bit unyielding in her Save-a-Soul uniform, the actress loosens up along with her character as the performance progresses. Together with Jonathan Brian Furedy as the beleaguered Nathan Detroit, they keep the show shaking like dice in a tinhorn's fist.

LANFORD WILSON'S Hot L Baltimore is one of those big-ensemble plays usually relegated to community-theater groups whose weighty earnestness flattens every character and pops the air out of every line. You've probably never heard of the Nathalia Stage Ensemble, the resident company at Muse--this is the group's first full-length production--and so you'd probably expect it to offer just another well-meaning but dreary Hot L Baltimore.

So go ahead. Expect the worst. Because you'll be in for a pleasant surprise.

The play is set in a decaying, urban hotel whose long-term residents are themselves flirting with the existential wrecking ball. They're mostly happy hookers and addled old-timers, loitering in the lobby with nothing better to do than distract the cranky desk staff. The slice-of-life story, which director Steve Anderson admits is nearly plotless, spawned a short-lived, slightly racy 1975 sitcom produced by Norman Lear, and you know what that means: outspoken, politically incorrect but loveable characters operating, at best, on the fringes of polite society.

The Hot L Baltimore (presumably the "e" on the neon sign has burned out) has a serious streak of not-so-quiet desperation that raises it far above the expected level of goofy ensemble comedy, and the characters, though necessarily sketchy, seem much more complex than in Wilson's later two-character play Talley's Folly, which just closed at Arizona Theatre Company.

For the most part, Anderson directs this production with a sure hand; the passages of Altmanesque overlapping dialog flow smoothly and almost (but not quite) comprehensibly, as they should, and Anderson never leaves peripheral figures on stage in a vacuum when one or two main characters are holding forth. He does, however, allow some of the actors to slide into caricature, conveying character in a loopy shorthand.

Fifteen actors take part in this production; all are worthy, but a few stand way out. First among them is Susan Arnold as the lively, brassy, been-around-the-block prostitute April Green. She need deliver only a few comments before we can appreciate the juicy irony of a line like, "I'm goin' to bed before I get bitter."

Another is Harris Kendall, who appears on local stages only at distressingly long intervals. Here she plays Jackie, a doomed, conniving loser trying to pull together enough money to flee to the promised land in Utah with her orphaned, diabetic little brother. Kendall's Jackie, tough but desperate, is the most compelling figure on stage.

Fine work also comes from, among others, Richard Applebaugh as a young man searching for his long-lost grandfather, and William Killian as a doddering but volatile old man.

Frank Calsbeek and Huna Hammond have provided a judiciously seedy set, and costume designers Erin Bradley and Amanda Frame know their way around '70s shabbiness. Don't delay making your reservation at The Hot L Baltimore; the setting and its characters may be derelict, but the production and the Muse facility are prime examples of urban renewal.

IF YOU ENTER LIVE THEATRE Workshop right now, you might fear you've wandered into some back room at the Gaslight Theatre.

The new show, Bullshot Crummond, has Gaslight written all over it: This is a spoof of 1930s English detective movies, with intentionally creaky jokes and dorky special effects. There's more adult humor than you'd get at Gaslight, although nothing should offend granny; the trade-off, perhaps, is that nobody breaks into song. (For that, see The Singing Detective--preferably the original TV series, not the movie.)

I attended opening night having broken a toe a few hours before and not yet having gotten my hands on pain-relieving narcotics. In truth, Bullshot Crummond was not an adequate substitute, but I hesitate to slam this production as hard as my foot did the furniture, in case my fractured piggy was interfering with my pleasure receptors.

Bullshot Crummond was cobbled together in the 1970s by a too-large group of conspirators, and the result is as uneven as Prince Charles' ears. Some scenes are absolutely riotous; others muddle along self-consciously; and a couple of interesting peripheral characters fall by the wayside too soon.

As directed by Jeremy Thompson, the best bits surrender to absolute absurdity. Many of these involve Bruce Bieszki as a Nazi spy and Dyan Roosma as his accomplice/mistress. In one scene, Roosma is carrying on a conversation with the Nazi and a Chicago hit man, both played by Bieszki, who keeps contriving to step behind a screen for quick costume changes in mid-line. In another, Bieszki makes a telephone call, impersonating the English scientist (Matt Walley) he has kidnapped; Walley, whose character is unconscious, speaks the lines while Bieszki moves his lips in deliberately inept synchronization. And in another triumph of low humor, Cliff Madison, as the titular hero, struts around in a costume that leaves no doubts as to whether he has the balls for the job.

But other moments struck me that night as painfully uninspired, especially a restaurant scene that went nowhere and took excruciatingly long to do so. What's with Walley's drawn-out delivery as the waiter? Is he parodying Bieszki's acting style, which involves little initial delays, as if he's calling in his lines by cell phone?

Still, the cast works very hard, including Dawn Haisler as Crummond's self-absorbed damsel-in-distress love interest, and it's hard to resist effects that are so deliberately phony and cheesy. Bullshot Crummond can be an intermittently amusing diversion, as long as you don't expect it to cure what ails you.

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