Thomas Camm, as Nicely Nicely Johnson, is joined by gamblers and mission workers in singing "Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat" in a recent production of "Guys and Dolls" at The Gary-The Olivia Theater in Bethlehem. (Photo submitted)\
Are you picturing a lush, air-conditioned theater with plush carpeting, golden stencils and an enormous chandelier? Picture this instead: You are in a faded red barn with no walls, only support beams and a peaked roof. Exposed beams overhead are draped with stage lights. Under your feet, gravel crunches. The usher shows you to a metal folding chair. The smell of citronella torches mingles with perfume, sending blood-thirsty insects mixed signals.
It is August and you are at a performance of "Guys and Dolls" at The Gary-The Olivia Theater on the grounds of the Abbey of Regina Laudis, home to a community of cloistered Benedictine nuns. The 300-seat theater was built in 1982 with the help of the late Patricia Neal, who died during the production’s run. The matinee performance on Aug. 8, the day she died, was dedicated to the Academy Award-winning actress, a longtime friend of the community of nuns.
Just because the theater lacks the amenities of more posh venues – its refreshment stand serves water or lemonade for whatever amount you feel like donating, and the restrooms are portable fiberglass booths – don’t think that the performances lack any of the splendor of the best regional theaters.
Sally Camm, co-director with her husband, Thomas Camm, said they chose "Guys and Dolls" for the summer 2010 production because Frank Loesser, who wrote the music and lyrics, was born 100 years ago this year. "We wanted to focus on composers and writers who contributed to American music, and he’s so diverse in what he’s done," she said. Two months earlier, the theater had hosted a benefit production featuring Loesser’s music.
"Guys and Dolls" opened on Broadway in 1950, starring Robert Alda, Sam Levine, Isabel Bigley and Vivian Blaine. It ran for 1,200 performances and won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical. A 1955 film version starred Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Frank Sinatra and Vivian Blaine.
The Camms’ production featured a cast that included veterans as well as newcomers, a custom of the theater since the Camms began running it seven years ago. The "fable of Broadway" weaves two love stories around the adventures of New York City gamblers and criminals. The book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows is adapted from several stories by Damon Runyon.
The uncertainty of the tale is foreshadowed in the first song, "Fugue for Tinhorns," in which gamblers Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Mr. Camm), Benny Southstreet (Kevin Long) and Rusty Charlie (Kevin McElroy) all claim to have picked a horse that is sure to win. "I’ve got the horse right here!" they sing with conviction, each picking a different horse.
Nathan Detroit (Rob Iulo) runs "the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York," but the heat is on and he needs $1,000 to secure the Biltmore Garage for a high-stakes game. He bets high-rolling Sky Masterson (David Nelson) that Sky cannot take Save A Soul Mission director Sarah Brown (Ashley Moret), to Havana. Sky charms Sarah by pretending to be a repentant sinner, and off they go to Cuba.
Nathan’s other problem is Adelaide (Jolian Cook), a nightclub singer and his fiancée of 14 years. He is reluctant to marry her because "Marriage ain’t something you jump into like a kettle of fish." But when Lt. Brannigan (Frederick Doms) gets suspicious that a gathering of known gamblers portends a crap game, Nathan is forced to announce that it’s really a celebration of his imminent elopement with Adelaide.
By Act Two in the open-air theater, you are dimly aware of katydids singing duets to each other in the Bethlehem woods. Onstage, duets lead to two marriages – Nathan to Adelaide, Sky to Sarah – and a dozen repentant gamblers’ souls are saved in the bargain.
The songs have become part of the national consciousness: "A Bushel and a Peck," "Guys and Dolls," "If I Were a Bell," "Luck Be a Lady," "Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat" and more. All were delivered with zeal and a richness of tone – especially by Mr. Nelson and Ms. Moret. In their first duet, "I’ll Know," Ms. Moret sings in a rich, pure soprano that she’ll "know by his calm, steady voice" that her love has come along. Mr. Nelson then sings a phrase in just that calm, steady voice.
There were times when the music overpowered the voices, and there were times when actors moved awkwardly or simply did not move enough. Sky’s long-awaited entrance several minutes into Act One seemed anticlimactic, as he slipped onstage almost unnoticed in his gray suit.
The ensemble, led by Craig Hartley, often had to vamp too long between scene changes, as white-veiled Benedictine nuns in black habits served as stagehands.
But the exuberant dancing, the comically garish suits of the gamblers and the sheer enthusiasm of the actors more than made up for the few flaws. And, perhaps through the intercession of Patricia Neal, there wasn’t a mosquito in sight all evening.