In what is fast becoming an annual tradition, Portland Center Stage once again opens their new season with a musical. And in what has long since been a critical tradition, I begin a review of a Portland Center Stage play with the phrase: "The set looked great, but...."
This year's season opener is the Chris Coleman-directed Guys and Dolls. In an attempt to liven up the rather trite book, Coleman has reframed the show as a loopy, slapdash romp, a cartoonish spectacle with outlandish costumes, hammy actors, and sexy, winking dance sequences. Visually, it's masterful: G.W. Mercier's beautiful set has the hazy, blocky quality of old static-background animations, vividly setting off the broad stripes and bright colors of Jeff Cone's costumes.
Unfortunately, the fantastic visual aesthetic is undercut by two things: Daniel Ordower's light design, which too often leaves the stage dim and the actors inadequately spotlit, and a directorial hand that coaxes bigger-than-life performances out of only some of the ensemble, leaving too many actors outperformed by their own costumes.
John Plumpis is fine as the hapless Nathan Detroit, and Stacia Fernandez goes admirably all out for her portrayal of Detroit's long-suffering fiancée. There's a great turn too by Portlander Leif Norby as the wisecracking Benny Southstreet, who demonstrates once again that local actors can handle the big leagues. These cast members commit to their outsized characters, and it works, but most of the rest of the ensemble just doesn't play it big enough. Most egregiously, the miscast Carey Brown as the Bible-thumping love interest Sarah Brown is simply acting in the wrong production. There's not a trace of humor in her portrayal, nary a wink at the audience: She plays her good-girl character straight, endowing her love scenes with gambler Sky Masterson (played by the appropriately cocky Robert Mammana) with a tedious earnestness. (She also has an unchecked vibrato that distracts more than it impresses.)
We're in the last weeks of a heated election season, the most sinister "hockey mom" in history is a few heartbeats away from the presidency, and oh, yeah, the economy is collapsing. This production, dolled up and desperate, simply isn't compelling enough to distract from the realities outside the theater.