Thursday, May 14, 2009

Thursday Night in Greenpoint: Opening Night at Automotive High School's "Guys and Dolls"

We've just come back from a terrific opening night performance at Automotive High School's exuberant production of Guys and Dolls. It was a wonderful evening watching some enormously talented students put on a classic musical. We can only imagine the long hours of hard work and devotion on the part of the Auto High kids, their director Candace Parr, and everyone else concerned that went into this show. But it was well worth it! And it would be worth your while to see it on Friday or Saturday.

(Photo courtesy of Mugsniffer)

We've gone to a lot of school musicals since our 1965 performance of The King and I at Meyer Levin Junior High in East Flatbush. (Pity the poor people who had to listen to a tone-deaf little ninth grader try to talk his way through "Whistle a Happy Tune" as Anna's son Louis.) Tonight's show was one of the best we've seen.

The sets were imaginative, the choreography was superb, and the production was staged with some clever bits, particularly in the Havana nightclub scene and at the mission and the Hot Box, where Adelaide (a smashingly funny Naomi Saez) sings "Take Back Your Mink" accompanied by six talented boy dancers and also performs magic with "A Bushel and a Peck."

The lighting was occasionally spotty in the first act, and a wayward car alarm in front of Auto High (yeah, we get the irony) distracted us a little bit, but the show was so compelling that we were always brought back to Frank Loesser's music and the classic Damon Runyon story and characters as adapted by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows (the famous show "doctor" whom we are old enough to have met in person).

Standouts in the cast, in addition to the buoyant Naomi Saez, whose rendition of Adelaide's laments ("A person could develop a cold") were delightful, were Robert Betz, who hit all the right notes of exasperating charm as a sharp Nathan Detroit; Christopher Wilson, slick and polished as Sky Masterson; and freshman Zairhra Burgess, who seemed perfect as Sgt. Sarah Brown as she moved believably from prim religiosity to smitten girlishness.

Clinton Bascom as Nicely Nicely Johnson and Darnell Lee as Benny Southstreet provided some of the night's best musical moments when they sang the show's title song to imaginative stage business by the guys and dolls of the cast and when they, along with Oscar Moreno as Rusty Charlie, opened with the signature "Fugue for Tinhorns," a tune we've always liked ("I got the horse right here/ The name is Paul Revere...").

Samuel Benjamin gave a convincing performance as the elderly founder of the Broadway mission and sang a surprisingly affecting "More I Cannot Wish You," a song we'd heretofore considered a throwaway. Timothy Brown made a comically threatening Big Jule, Rocko Seymour was dynamic as police Lt. Brannigan, and all the guys who played the crapshooters made the most of their roles, particularly during the "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat" number. Also particularly excellent were the Havana Dancers (Samantha Colon and Ysidro Peneda).

As we said, it was an exuberant evening, and Guys and Dolls is gaudy and larger than life in many ways, but for us, two of the best moments in the show were the low-key, wry "Sue Me" number between Nathan and Adelaide and, earlier, Sarah's coming-to-life ballad, "If I Were a Bell." And it's always great to hear "Besame Mucho."

The show's "Happy Ending" was perfect, and the cast received loud applause and cheers as they playfully took their bows. Kudos to all, including those in the cast and crew we didn't mention here (it's getting late and we're sleep-deprived) and to the director, Candace Parr.

There were wonderful souvenir T-shirts on sale, and decent snacks, including hot dogs for carnivores, to be had before the curtain went up and at the intermission. Thanks also to principal Mellisa Silberman and vice principal Jose Castro, who we hear have done a good job at the school.

We enjoyed Guys and Dolls and are grateful to all those involved in it. Go see it and we'll lay odds you'll enjoy it, too.

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