Theater » Theater Feature

Guys and Dollies

The Ostranders celebrate 20 years with style. Plus, Playhouse puts Guys and Dolls on wheels.



It's time for a little self-congratulation. Last year, Donna Davis, Memphis magazine's director of marketing, the unsung hero who organizes the Ostrander Awards, was having a difficult time lining up a host for the show. I suggested that if all else failed, she should try calling Kim Justis and Jenny Odle-Madden, a pair of local actresses with quick wits and a gift for giddy self-parody. This year, after Kim and Jenny's second stint at hosting the big show, the comic duo were given a special "Losers' Award" at the P&H Café declaring them "Ostranders hosts for life." Whether or not they continue in this capacity remains to be seen, but either way, it's good to know that, finally, this critic has said something with which the entire theater community seems to agree. The general buzz was that, thanks in no small part to Kim and Jenny, the Ostranders had finally evolved from rote ceremony into an all-out celebration of Memphis theater.

The awards themselves ran from the predictable to the confounding. As I suggested in last week's column, Rhodes' Hamlet and the U of M's Into the Woods took home most of the big prizes. In the Community Division, Ragtime swept the musical category receiving five awards, including Best Production, Director, Musical Director, Leading Actor, and Leading Actress.

Copenhagen's win for best dramatic production, however, came as quite a surprise. The Circuit Playhouse production of Michael Frayn's Tony-winning script boasted a stellar cast, including Dave Landis, Christina Wellford Scott, and Jonathon Lamer, but reviews for the long, sometimes monotonous piece had been mixed at best.

Jordan Nichols, the son of Playhouse on the Square's executive producer, Jackie Nichols, and who recently left Memphis to study at NYU, was awarded the Larry Riley Rising Star Award.

Dorothy Blackwood, the 79-year-old actress who has performed on virtually every stage in town, got the entire audience misty-eyed with her tearful acceptance of the Eugart Yerian Award for lifetime achievement.

You can find a complete list of the winners at

Guys and Dolls is good in spite of itself

As Brian Mott, host of the Losers' Awards, an annual post-Ostranders event, always says, "Check your egos at the door" because nobody gets out of the Losers' unbloodied. And funny though they are, they can be vicious. For instance, at this year's ceremony the capacity crowd burst into applause after Mott bestowed instant canonization on the cast of Guys and Dolls for not murdering their director while they had the chance. Wow! Never, to my knowledge, in the history of Memphis theater has a cast been so publicly angry with the direction their show was taking. But to their good credit, you would never know from watching this warhorse of a show that anybody was the least bit unhappy with their clearly misguided circumstances.

Here's what went wrong: Guest director Paul Russell thought it would be a good idea to infuse Guys and Dolls, a bright comedy set in the 1950s, with the Depression-era darkness of the original Damon Runyon short stories on which the musical is based. Boy, was he wrong. Though set in an underworld of gamblers and thugs determined to shoot craps at any cost, Guys and Dolls is just a silly romantic romp, and giving it a Threepenny Opera makeover, while perhaps admirable in intent, undermines everything that has made this show a perennial charmer. And, as if these dark pretensions weren't problem enough, you would swear the actors were all crippled by the way the director insists on having them wheeled around the stage on dollies and pushcarts. Nobody just walks in. This was clearly a device intended to give the show the look and feel of an Andrew Lloyd Webber extravaganza. Laughable is the kindest word that comes to mind.

Jimmy Humphries' set borrows many of the best elements from previous Playhouse shows, including Bat Boy, Ragtime, and Grease, and reassembles them in an obtrusive way that cuts the stage-depth in half, making all the choreography seem lifeless.

Though the odds are stacked heavily against them, the talented cast still manages to win the audience with sincerity and strong voices. Standouts include Leah Bray-Nichols as Sarah, the Christian missionary who makes the incorrigible Sky Masterson an honest man, Jason Watson as the wily Masterson, and George Edgar as the thuggishly funny Big Jule. In a star turn that begs for comparisons to Nathan Lane, John Hemphill's "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat" steals the show.

Through September 14th

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