It’s a grueling schedule: For the past seven weeks, the 25-member cast of the upcoming Ray Bolger Musical Theater Program production of "Guys and Dolls" has been going through the paces, rehearsing six times a week — four hours at a stretch — in anticipation of opening night set for Thursday, May 22, at the Freud Playhouse. That’s all on top of the day-to-day routine of going to class, writing papers and working part-time jobs.
“The rehearsal schedule is very demanding, but at this point I’ve gotten used to it,” said senior musical theater major Ashley Jones. “I do have other classes and projects going on, which makes things a little crazy. This quarter, my a cappella group was competing in the final round of an international competition. So there were many nights where I had back-to-back rehearsals ... Even so, I’m excited to work with some of my closest friends and favorite instructors in this production. The material itself is so much fun, making this creative process really enjoyable.”
Fellow musical theater senior Michael Starr puts it this way: “It’s a bunch to juggle, but performing is something I’m very passionate about so I make it work. When things get stressful, I just remind myself of this amazing privilege to share these stories with an audience. And that puts me back in a positive perspective.”
Clearly, no one is complaining. The consensus seems to be that working on the jaunty musical is a labor of love for the actors, who have been happily toiling away on the production since January under the guidance of director Linda Kerns, musical director Dan Belzer, choreographer Peggy Hickey and production manager Jeff Wachtel, who is responsible for overseeing the technical side of the show.
With music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, "Guys and Dolls" is a classic tale, based on two short stories by Damon Runyon, about freewheeling gamblers and innocent missionaries in 1940s New York City. The musical, which premiered on Broadway in 1950 and then in London in 1953, has had numerous revivals throughout the years. It was the perfect choice for the current crop of School of Theater, Film and Television theater students, said vocal director Jeremy Mann.
“'Guys and Dolls' employs a variety of vocal singing styles — standard musical theater belting, character singing and ‘legit’ singing — and we were confident that we could cast the show and fulfill these style obligations,” Mann said. “We also knew that we could meet the dancing and movement styles with our students, while continuing to challenge them as actors exploring characters.”
The journey of "Guys and Dolls" to the Freud Playhouse stage began last year when a Department of Theater faculty committee met to determine which show students would do.
“As our past several shows ('Rent' in the 2010-11 season and 'Spring Awakening' in the 2012-13 season) have been quite contemporary, we were looking for a show from the Golden Era of the American book musical (1943-1964),” Mann said. “This was the main consideration that led us to choosing 'Guys and Dolls.' We also wanted a show with a significant number of featured ensemble roles, as well as principal roles, which this show has.”
Department of Theater Chair Michael Hackett said cast members' cohesion makes them particularly strong.
“There are many talented individuals in this group who can create distinct personalities,” Hackett said, “but they also have the ability to rally together and sing these great choruses that are part of the piece, creating a sense of ensemble.”
According to Kerns, "Guy and Dolls" is one of 30 productions (of varying sizes) that the Department of Theater is producing this academic year. As is the case with every Ray Bolger Musical Theater Program production, all musical theater students were required to audition for the show. Other theater majors — and minors — were welcome to try out as well.
Auditions were held in the seventh week of winter quarter over three days with Kerns, choreographer Hickey, musical director Belzer, vocal director Mann and stage manager Stephen Taylor Snyder judging student performances; all but Snyder made the final cast determinations.
As with all UCLA TFT theatrical productions, Kerns said, “If a student was offered a role, he or she was required to accept it. There’s never any cherry-picking.”
Which suits senior Coleton Schmitto, a communications major and theater minor, just fine.
“I always get cast in roles that I didn’t initially realize would be good for me,” he said. “Every unexpected role has been a challenge and has allowed me to grow as a performer.”
Schmitto and Starr landed two of the four lead roles as gamblers Nathan Detroit and Sky Masterson, respectively; Jones plays Sister Sarah Brown, and senior theater major Jane Papageorge portrays Miss Adelaide.
From set, lighting and sound design to costumes and props, "Guys and Dolls" is truly a joint effort involving every discipline within the Department of Theater.
“It’s at a larger scale than some of the musicals we’ve been doing recently, which have been more intimate, sparse and austere,” Hackett said. “There will be more on stage with 'Guys and Dolls.' The scenery and costumes are part of the storytelling.”
Grad students Adam Alonso, Matt Johns and Allison Agler were assigned as the show’s set, lighting and costume designers, respectively, each with faculty advisers lending a metaphorical hand when needed and each leading their own small teams of students.
“I have six assistants helping me just to get this up and running,” said Agler, who has been working on costumes for the show for the past nine months and putting in 14-hour days as opening night draws near.
Construction of the 100 period costumes used in the show began in February after the actors were cast in late January. "Not surprisingly, there are challenges every single day,” Agler said, “whether it’s the fabric we wanted has run out, something doesn't fit or we have to add a character late in the game. It happened! Lady Luck is now the centerpiece of this massive dance number [requiring an appropriately shiny costume]. Every day someone asks for something different. We just roll with the punches.”
What makes "Guys and Dolls" timeless? Kern said the appeal of the show lies in its ability to please most audiences — and the fact that it’s a little bit of musical theater history.
“It’s one of the greatest musicals ever written,” she said. “There’s nothing offensive about it — and the kids don’t get to do older, classic musicals very often here.”
Jones, who landed one of the leading roles, concurs: “I had never actually seen 'Guys and Dolls' or performed in it myself,” she said. “I got to know the material prior to auditioning by looking at YouTube videos, watching the movie and listening to various cast recordings.”
Staging and choreography rehearsals have moved into the Freud Playhouse from classrooms in Macgowan Hall, and now, just a week before show time, the actors, designers and crew are more excited than nervous about opening night.
“I think it will be probably one of my proudest moments. I might even cry,” Agler said. “To have an idea, to put it in a drawing, to take it to the costume shop and say, ‘OK, let’s make this’ and then it appears … there’s no greater satisfaction for a costume designer.”
Said Starr: “The show will be well-polished by opening night, and we will all be ready to share it. We have all put so much of ourselves into the show. It will be great to finally show it off to an audience.”
This story appears on the School of Theater, Film and Television website.
"Guys and Dolls" runs May 22-24, 27-31, 8 p.m.; May 24 and 31, 2 p.m., at the Freud Playhouse. For tickets to the show, visit Ticketmaster.