This story is part of a series of articles spotlighting Thespian troupes and the shows that earned them 2020 International Thespian Festival main stage recognition.

TROUPE 1794 of Floyd Central High School in Floyds Knobs, Indiana, has an impressive legacy of International Thespian Festival main stage shows. Their production of Guys and Dolls marks the school’s 17th ITF main stage invitation. The troupe’s more recent main stage performances include Newsies (2018), 42nd Street (2016), The Drowsy Chaperone (2011, co-presented with Troupe 4501 of New Albany [Ind.] High School), The Diviners (2008), and Zombie Prom (2007).

In 2017, Floyd Central earned an EdTA Outstanding School Award for integrating technical theatre professionals into its curriculum and involving students in charitable initiatives and educational outreach, in addition to producing six to eight full-scale productions each year.

STORY

After a crackdown by Times Square patrolman Lieutenant Brannigan, Nathan Detroit needs to move his notorious floating craps, or dice, game to the Biltmore garage. For that, the broke gambler needs $1,000 — and a bit of luck. Nathan bets the reckless high-roller Sky Masterson a grand that Sky won’t be able to fly Sarah Brown, a pious local sergeant of the Save-A-Soul Mission, to Havana for dinner.

Sky, in turn, promises Sarah he’ll bring a dozen sinners to her mission revival meeting if she’ll dine with him in the Cuban capital. She refuses — until General Cartwright, leader of Save-A-Soul, threatens to shut down Sarah’s branch unless she can meet her attendance quota. Desperate, she accepts Sky’s offer, while Nathan improvises by hosting the craps game at Sarah’s mission house while she’s away with Sky.

Of course, both guys’ plans go awry once “dolls” get involved. Adelaide, headlining showgirl at the Hot Box Club and Nathan’s fiancée of 14 years, gets fed up with his refusal to commit to her and give up gambling. Meanwhile, Sky is outwitted when his romantic subterfuge of Sarah Brown backfires and he inadvertently falls for the earnest evangelist.

BACKGROUND

Guys and Dolls was inspired by the short stories of Damon Runyon, a Prohibition-era newspaper columnist and author specializing in sports and fictional rogues. The musical adaptation of Runyon’s works, most notably pulled from the stories “Blood Pressure” and “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown,” was conceived by producers Cy Feuer and Ernie Martin, who developed the piece in unusual sequence. They first tapped actor Sam Levene to play Nathan Detroit, then hired Frank Loesser to write lyrics and music capturing Runyon’s famous style and half-fabricated New York dialect — accommodating Levene’s husky, tone-challenged singing voice. Finally, Abe Burrows wrote the script, weaving Loesser’s songs into the classic we know today.

The script was selected for the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Drama but vetoed by the Columbia University trustees who oversaw the award due to Burrows’ previous blacklisting by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The original Broadway production enjoyed an impressive 1,200 performances and won five 1951 Tony Awards, including best musical. The show premiered in London’s West End in 1953 and has seen multiple revivals in both London and New York, including a 1992 Broadway return that nearly matched the original’s run. In 1955, Guys and Dolls was adapted by MGM into a film starring Marlon Brando as Sky and Frank Sinatra as a decidedly smoother-voiced Nathan, to the delight of Sinatra fans and chagrin of Loesser, who famously couldn’t bring himself to watch.

TROUPE 1794’S PRODUCTION

For Troupe 1794 Director of Theatre Arts Robbie Steiner, the “old-school, big dance numbers” of Guys and Dolls balanced the school’s more contemporary season selections, while playing to his Thespians’ strengths. “It’s important to expose this generation to the classics, the Golden Age era of musicals,” he said, “to make sure we’re giving them a well-rounded musical theatre experience.”

The greatest acting challenge, he said, was getting the show’s iconic style right. “Shows like this are so stylized in ways we don’t really put into newer materials, and you need to balance that style with authentic acting,” he said. “If [the characters] are not real people, we don’t care.”

In particular, Steiner and his students took a thoughtful approach to the female characters of Adelaide and Sarah, “especially in a post-#MeToo world with a different worldview. We went in thinking, ‘How can we portray the female characters as strong, fully developed people?’”

Junior Grace Platt found plenty in her character to work with. “I absolutely fell in love with Sergeant Sarah Brown,” she said. “She is very straight-laced and confident. … However, [in rehearsals] I learned just how vulnerable she became whenever she was around Sky Masterson.”

Above all, Platt admires Sarah for her resilience. “She was ignored by people in the streets when she would preach, but she kept going.”

Guys and Dolls also gave Steiner and his creative team of student designers and technicians a juicy challenge. “It was fun to create the excitement of Broadway, the world below the marquee lights. This show is very colorful, not super-exaggerated cartoonish, but also not totally realistic; it’s somewhere in the middle.”

Student lighting designer Sam Hendrix at first worried that the age of the show might not appeal to contemporary audiences, but as they dug into design concepts, the production grew on him. “The most challenging part of designing the show for me was trying to find the line between too much and not enough, between just right and distracting.”

Hendrix is fascinated by “the mix of creativity and science that goes into every [lighting] design,” and Guys and Dolls gave him a great opportunity to work toward “perfection of the craft” and integrate his designs into a technically ambitious show.

Overall, Guys and Dolls challenged Troupe 1794 to explore new territory with acting, choreography, design, and more, while bringing new audience members into their theatre. “One of the things most exciting for me and eye-opening for students was seeing a lot of the older generation in the audience, who have a connection to the show and the music — pulling out memories for these folks and giving them joy,” Steiner said.

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