Gambling With the Classics

Hal Hundley hopes well-known fare like 'Guys and Dolls' helps his fledgling theater company find success

Putting on a musical is always some sort of a gamble, literally so when the show is Guys and Dolls, about professional gamblers and the women they love.

Redondo Music Theatre's Hal Hundley is hedging his bets, though, by casting the show mainly with actors he's worked with many times in the past, in some cases going back to his days in charge of the Southern Arizona Light Opera Company (SALOC) in the '70s and '80s, and even before that to his association with Playbox Community Theatre.

Starring as high-rolling gambler Sky Masterson, who accepts a challenge to take the ultra-straight, Salvation Army-style Sarah Brown out to dinner--in Cuba--is Craig Oldfather. He's spent most of the last couple of decades out of town; for 18 months of that time, he played Enjolras, leader of the revolutionary students, in the San Francisco production of Les Miserables.

Some performers, on the other hand, are new to Hundley, including Danae Ervin, who plays nightclub singer Miss Adelaide. "She's got a powerhouse voice," says Hundley. "You can hear her across town."

As much as he enjoys fresh talent, Hundley gets a special kick out of reuniting with performers he directed 20 years ago. "It's wonderful," he says. "They know how I work, so we can work very fast, and they put up with my curmudgeony, if that's a word."

Hundley may be a curmudgeon, but he probably wouldn't be able to re-engage actors if he were as bad as Frank Loesser, who wrote the music and lyrics for Guys and Dolls. He notoriously slapped actress Isabel Bigley for not singing to his liking during rehearsals for the 1950 show.

That's the sort of behavior you might expect from the petty criminals populating this musical, but the characters pretty much mind their manners. (One is even named Nicely-Nicely Johnson.) The story is taken from various tales by Damon Runyon, mainly "The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown." Guys and Dolls became a film in 1955, starring Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra, and Sky's big solo, "Luck Be a Lady," turned out to be one of Sinatra's major hits.

Meanwhile, in 2007 Tucson, Hundley will be lucky to build an immediate audience for Redondo Music Theatre, and luck hasn't been on his side so far. Over the summer, he got into trouble for having named his company "Roundabout Music Theatre"; the real Roundabout Theatre in New York sent its lawyers after him, claiming he was sowing confusion among East Coast subscribers and donors. Hence the new name. At least it, too, starts with an R, so Hundley didn't have to get his logo redesigned.

He's having enough trouble getting butts into the seats. His first production when he returned to Tucson and launched the company was Cabaret, playing in a retirement community too far away for Tucsonans to visit. (Hundley will revive Cabaret downtown later this season.) A few months ago, he put on Pump Boys and Dinettes, a rather obscure work scheduled in conflict with some major events downtown.

So, to get his company on firmer footing, Hundley has packed this season with old favorites like Guys and Dolls.

"I like this show, but I also know the audience likes the show," he says. "When we're having to build a company that's new, I need to be able to start off with shows that have a great deal of audience appeal. This one does, and so do South Pacific and Cabaret. So does Kismet, which has not been done in Tucson since I did it in '77, my first season of SALOC. It has glorious music"--stolen mainly from classical composer Alexander Borodin--"and I don't know why other local theaters haven't produced it.

"So for at least the first two seasons, I'm going to stick with the old warhorses until we get known, and then I can put in the shows that people don't know, but they'll trust that if we're doing it, it's gonna be good.

"Guys and Dolls has a lot of appeal to everybody, except some of the younger kids; it's got good, solid music, and I'm telling you, when you hear those 20 voices on that stage, you'll think I've got 50, because they are strong. That's what I push for. I tell them, 'I don't want you to sing pretty; I want you to sing loud.'

"They're having fun doing the show. At least I think they are; I haven't felt too many knives in my back."