Thursday, November 17, 2016

Blurring 'Guys & Dolls' Lines at LOT

the cast of ASU LOT's Guy and Dolls
by Jennifer Haaland

It's been over sixty years since Loesser and Lowe's Guys and Dolls premiered on Broadway... and didn't win its Pulitzer Prize.  That's a story about rocky socio-political waters in our country's history.  Amidst some plenty choppy societal waves today, Director Toby Yatso at Lyric Opera Theatre (LOT) on ASU's campus is also rocking the musical's boat in his own production that opens tonight for a week long run.

"I am not in the camp of great equals traditional or old when it comes to musicals," Yatso begins, making clear he's not entering into the task buoyed by a flood of nostalgia. "It's dangerous when this soothing thing called time takes the edge off of a piece of art and it risks becoming sterile. I feel like we need a reason to see Guys and Dolls in 2016."

The plot, on the surface, revolves around big city gamblers and the pure of heart who want to save their sinning souls.  But those themes run a little stale in an era where both religion and gambling addictions have had transformative facelifts.

His premise caused Yatso to think outside the box about the well known musical that includes favorites like "Bushel and a Peck" and "Luck Be a Lady."  He found several 21st Century inroads  into the 1950s story that's set in New York City.  Then, he made a huge, unexpected decision.

"I made a bold choice in casting," Yatso says, followed by a pregnant pause.

The story, as many know, features a stereotypic oafish, imposing, mob boss in a supporting role.  Large and in charge, Big Jule is in from Chicago--not on home turf--and itching to dominate a crap game. But what if... the boss is not a Guy?  What if the boss is a Doll?

"The universe of storytelling is infinitely more interesting. The complexities make for a better story when we widen the traditional gender fields!" asserts Yatso.

He cites current mainstream entertainment like "Weeds," "Game of Thrones," Breaking Bad" and "Gotham" to support his point. Gender is just the first excellent irony of his choice. He's excited to tick through the list.  LOT's Big Jule isn't just an outsider because she's from Chi-town. She is of minority race, she is an opposite gender and she is the most diminutive 'Big' that people have likely seen in the role.

"Erin [Kong] is an extremely funny actress as a mob boss. She doesn't mind getting dirty as long as she's winning," he describes.

Toby Yatso
photo courtesy Phoenix Theatre
Noting Kong is a cofounder of Asian Performers Coalition at ASU, and an Honors student, he says she is also likely no more than 4'11".  Yatso seems to love the prospect of upending convention, of making people re-think their assumptions and stereotypes.

Upending, but never disrespecting.  Along with professional credentials as long as the odds on Sky Masterson's bets, Yatso has a fond history with the musical and is doubtless conscientiously representing it.  His first Valley show at Phoenix Theatre almost a decade ago was in a production of Guys and Dolls. The next year he was conducting and musically directing it in Michigan.

He's also surrounded himself with a creative team unequaled.  Molly Lajoie is setting a Michael Kidd-like athleticism into the choreography while Miles Plant's music direction includes touches of personalized orchestration and vocal arrangements.

"Essentially we are telling a fairytale that is set in New York. Instead of a documentary, it's like a postcard of fantasy," Yatso summarizes.

Those experiences dwelling on the time-honored musical ensure Yatso has not taken his re-imagined decisions lightly. After lots of prep work and consultations he knew what started as a crazy little idea needed to become a big serious statement.

"We're living in a time where we behave differently than we've ever behaved. Even in social constructs that suggest women don't have power, they absolutely do," he says as he turns to other fresh perspectives he's working to present in Guys and Dolls.

"We are also all looking hard at the phenomenon of people being judged. My students are finding more on the inside of this show than they ever anticipated."

For an old-time musical that seems sweet, predictable and simple, Guys and Dolls harbors unexpected depth.  It was selected as the 1951 Pulitzer Prize winner, but never honored with the award because the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was intimidating the bejeebers out of lots of regular American citizens, including one of the show's writers. In 2016, Yatso is seizing an opportunity to beat back other kinds of intimidation on our campuses and beyond.

"The show reverberates in everyone's soul that way," Yatso says inviting the Valley to come enjoy the new ideas that beloved tradition can spark. "If there's a lesson here, it's that even the most divided can find a way to come together."

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