With his earrings and colorful garb, Kent Gash looks like an extra in a buccaneer flick. But the treasure he seeks is not buried on some distant desert isle. He wants to strike theatrical gold at the Guthrie Theater.
Gash is directing the Guthrie's splashy summer musical, "Guys and Dolls." In mining the Frank Loesser classic, he's hoping to revive a throwback show with special meaning for him and to connect with 21st-century audiences.
Even as he stays true to the frothy, fun-loving spirit of the musical comedy, he's updating the casting, the interpretation of female roles and the overall sensibility of a work that has become a community theater and school staple.
"And we're doing it all from the text," he said during a recent rehearsal break over fish and chips at Sea Change, the restaurant inside the Guthrie.
"When we approach these classic — these warhorse — musicals, we're always trying to figure out the author's intent and what makes them classics. Why do people's eyes light up when they hear this title? Why does it engender warmth and a sense of laughter? So often, we are so busy doing the comedy of it — the laugh of it — that the baseline true heart of it can be missed."
"Guys and Dolls" premiered on Broadway in 1950 and ran for 1,200 performances. It swirls around the unlikely romance of ardent gambler Sky Masterson and Sarah Brown, a missionary passionate about saving souls. The other main couple consist of shady Nathan Detroit and his showgirl fiancée, Adelaide. All meet in Times Square, then perceived as more a den of sin than a Disney-style theme park.
"The idea of Broadway had a certain romance and energy and rhythm," said Gash, a Denver native who has lived in New York since 1982 and teaches at New York University. "What a lot of people imagined New York to be is at the beginning of 'Guys and Dolls,' which is a crazy, knockabout world full of color and life that seems to come at you from all sides."
Seeing with fresh eyes
To refresh the show, Gash and his team have gone back to the original source material by Damon Runyon, whose stories about Times Square habitués form the basis of the musical. The updates and interpretive latitude that they have taken are all anchored in Runyon's world. Through this fresh lens, the musical should be retitled "Dolls and Guys," because the women are smarter than the men, and have power and agency.
"What we want in this production is for the female characters to be every bit as rich and complex and dimensional as the men are," Gash said. "And they're always in service to their own beliefs as well as in relationship to the men. The women in the piece are not here to serve the men, and these actresses aren't playing the roles in that way."
One of the most questionable aspects of the show has come into sharper focus with awareness of date-rape drugs. In "Guys and Dolls," Sky takes Sarah on a sojourn to Havana, where he orders her a cocktail. That scene often is played as if she has no idea that there's alcohol in the drink, or what liquor tastes like. The Sarah in this production is interpreted to be much more aware and knowing.
"The idea that he's doing something without her consent in this day and age is not something that we want to see onstage," said actor Olivia Hernandez, who plays Sarah.
The casting of Hernandez also reinforces the notion that Sarah knows a lot more than she's letting on. Her Latin heritage suggests the character has deeper knowledge of Cuban culture than Sky does.
But the diverse casting also is part of a wider interpretation of the world of dreamers and gangsters. The cast includes Katie Bradley, who recently performed a killer role in "Caught" in the Dowling Studio, versatile Twin Cities theater stalwart Regina Marie Williams and Caroline Innerbichler, a headliner in the upcoming national tour of "Frozen."
"I am a firm believer that if we're making theater, theater has to reflect the world we live in, and the world I live in is not culturally or racially monolithic," said Gash. "If families come to see this, I don't want any children to look onstage and go, how come nobody looks like me? Does that mean I'm not part of the fun, part of the story and the world?"
Notably, Gash has chosen actor Rodney Gardiner, who was part of the standout cast of Mary Zimmerman's captivating "Metamorphoses" this spring at the Guthrie, to play Nathan Detroit.
"These characters go through a real journey" of maturation and growth, Gardiner said.
A Guthrie hit in the '80s
"Guys and Dolls" has been big at the Guthrie in the past. Director Garland Wright staged it there in 1983, and it became the theater's biggest hit to that point and helped Wright land the top job of artistic director two years later.
The show has had many professional revivals, including a 1992 Broadway production headlined by Nathan Lane and Faith Prince.
Its enduring popularity has to do not only with Loesser's genius — "few people can land a comedic line on a melody like him," said Gash — but also the fact that it's so widely produced at the amateur level.
In fact, Gash was first exposed to the show at age 14, when he played sweet-dispositioned gambler Nicely-Nicely Johnson.
"He just tore it up," said veteran Twin Cities actor Janet Hayes Trow, a Denver native who was in the same grade with Gash and worked on that citywide high school show. "He was magical."
This "Dolls," in which Trow plays multiple roles, including a mission band member and a Hot Box girl, reunites the two old friends for the first time in decades.
"When I walked into the [audition] room, he said, 'Janet Hayes, come give me a hug.' After all these years, I'm getting to watch him work, and I'm using the B word — he's brilliant and generous with a thoroughly thought-out point of view."
"Guys and Dolls" is arguably the quintessential American musical comedy, marrying Tin Pan Alley with Ellingtonian jazz. But the show also reinforces some creeds that are central to the idea of America.
"There's a great sense of aspiration in it," said Gash. "People who've come to New York — this world-class city — come to be the best versions of who they are. Many first-generation immigrants who're wanting to see that manifest in the city don't necessarily have access to all the steps that give you that, like a great education, but they're finding ways to get there."
"Guys and Dolls," in its Runyonesque ways, is a metaphor for the American dream.
"It's a fable of Broadway with a heightened version of the truth," Gash continued. "And just like in any fable, anything is possible."
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390 • @rohanpreston
Guys and Dolls
Who: Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser. Book by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling. Directed by Kent Gash.
Where: Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Mpls.
When: 7:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat. & Tue.-Thu.; 7 p.m. Sun. Ends Aug. 25.
Tickets: $15-$93. 612-377-2224 or guthrietheater.org.