As I totter toward my twilight years, I find that I care less and less about heavy-duty drama. I've been around long enough to realize what a horrible place the world is, so I don't see the point in being reminded of it for three hours.
Which is one of the reasons I'm enjoying musicals more than I used to. If I feel the hankering to watch people treat each other poorly, I have only to read a newspaper or see a movie. (Quick -- what's the last film you saw that didn't have a gun in it?)
Another reason is that, when it comes to theater, I'm not sure how much I trust the honesty of "emotions." Thanks to the cultural dominance of television and pop music, sentimentality has trumped displays of actual talent, and expressing your feelings (which, usually, are the same feelings people have been feeling for hundreds of centuries) has become, ipso facto, proof of ability.
But the thing about musicals (especially shows from the golden age of Broadway) is that they are gloriously phony from curtain up. It makes no sense complaining about their artificiality, because that's their whole point.
So something like 1950's classic Guys and Dolls is made to order. At the heart of its book, based on short stories by Damon Runyon, it's just about whether the boys get the girls, the guys being gamblers Sky Masterson and Nathan Detroit, and their dolls Sarah and Adelaide.
Ho hum, really. But what makes the evening so unbelievably entertaining is that they chase each other around singing such landmark Frank Loesser tunes as "I'll Know," "Adelaide's Lament," "I've Never Been in Love Before" and the title number.
The good folks over at Carnegie Mellon University happily bring an enormous amount of energy and talent to their production. Thanks to rock-solid performances by leads Robert Lenzi, Ben D. Goldberg, Jessica Waxman and Emily Rossell, Loesser's numbers get the theatrical life they deserve. And I must mention Barrett Davis's show-stopping "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat," delivered with a powerhouse showman's punch.
Guys and Dolls is an interesting musical in that there's really not a lot of dancing in it. But when choreographer Bryon Easley and his company of male dancers get the chance to unfurl -- on "Luck, Be a Lady" and "Rockin' the Boat" -- unfurl they do, with unabashed glee.
Director Steve Cosson can be credited for guiding this whole thing to artistic fruition. He knows exactly what makes an old musical like this "sing," and drives the production with pace and polish. Though there's some academic weirdness in the program notes about "theater dialectics" and "remind[ing] Guys and Dolls where it came from," Cresson avoids the trap of trying to re-invent the show -- or, worse, make it better.
The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of Austin Jephson's set design, which attempts to turn this musical cartoon into a dark look at New York's criminal underbelly. And I don't know who's responsible for piping in the billowing clouds of smoke through the whole show, but they need to stop.
And one more comment: the orchestra. I saw a matinee performance, and knowing what I do about musicians, I'm not completely surprised that some of them weren't up to facing a sunny Saturday afternoon. But honestly ... if you're going to play that loud, you'd better be playing the right notes. And somebody in the horn section was painfully off-key.
Still, I'm happy to say that those were the few flubbed notes in this pleasantly able production.
Guys and Dolls continues through Sat., Dec. 8. Philip Chosky Theater, Carnegie Mellon campus, Oakland. 412-268-2407.