Laurel Mill Playhouse keeps 'Guys and Dolls' in the family

Tim Baeder and Amanda Dunsdon play the lead roles of gambler Sky Matheson and Salvation Army Sgt. Sarah Brown in Laurel Mill Playhouse's summer production of "Guys and Dolls."
Tim Baeder and Amanda Dunsdon play the lead roles of gambler Sky Matheson and Salvation Army Sgt. Sarah Brown in Laurel Mill Playhouse's summer production of "Guys and Dolls." (Photo courtesy of Laurel Mill Playhouse)

You won't find any summertime blues plaguing the youth performing in the current show at Laurel Mill Playhouse on Main Street.

The little theater's 2012 Summer Youth Production of "Guys and Dolls," with book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows and music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, spotlights one of the most highly praised music scores in the history of American musical theater. And the kids are loving every minute of it.


For close to 10 years, Laurel husband and wife Stu and Patti Knazik have been a force behind the theater's annual youth productions, selling out houses and fostering what Stu Knazik called the "Laurel Mill Playhouse family" in his pre-show announcements on opening night July 27.

This summer, "Guys and Dolls" is fulfilling a legacy of sorts as the Knaziks' daughter Jocelyn — a sophomore theater student at the University of Maryland who is suddenly too old to take the lead onstage —makes her directing debut.


With her dad as musical director and her mom as producer, Jocelyn Knazik has aptly assembled a charming cast of young performers, ranging in age from fifth-graders to high school seniors, to play 20th-century gangsters, gamblers, do-gooders and floozies.

Based on the popular short stories of Damon Runyon and set in New York City, the oft-revived "Guys and Dolls" has received numerous Tony awards since its 1950 premiere on Broadway; and the 1955 film of the same name, starring Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Frank Sinatra and Vivian Blaine, swept two Golden Globe awards.

This rendition opens to David Phelps' one-size-fits-all back alley set, which synchs easily with Hannah Mollerick's excellent choreography (watch for "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" by Nicely and company). Surrealistic faux brick walls, pipes and neon signs suggest a fitting locale for a floating crap game, the main plot device. And Kat Binney's lovely costume design is both sophisticated and tactfully appropriate for a cast in this age range.

The toe-tapping begins as three back street "guys" — Nicely-Nicely Johnson played by Stafford Nibley, Benny Southstreet played by Laurel resident Dante French and Rusty Charlie played by Tyler Rutherford — argue over a horse race.

Laurel resident Timothy Baeder and Amanda Dunsdon shine in the leading roles of gambler Sky Matheson and Salvation Army Sgt. Sarah Brown. Noah Wright and Danielle McCants, both of Laurel, are equally fresh as Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide, a small-time hustler and nightclub performer who've been engaged forever.

The romantic leads all sing well and deliver compelling characters, but McCants' presence and vocals are consistently superb — particularly in "Adelaide's Lament."

Supporting roles feature Sam Besse of Laurel as Lt. Brannigan; Michael Culhane as Arvide Abernathy; Amy Vecheck as General Cartwright; and Larry Burett and Isaih Fitzhugh, both of Laurel, and Dylan Harris and Tyler Rutherford as the gamblers.

Laurel residents Sophia Anastasi, Jordan Budzinski, Katie Grebenstein, Alexis Thompson, Allison Thompson and Kayleen Yermal are the adorable Hot Box Dancers.

Jaden Burnett, JoAnn Depestre, Laurel resident Jessica Harzer, Nicole Holland and Nia Rowe play the Salvation Army missionaries. And Amber Coleman; Morgan Delk; Nicole Woody; and Laurel residents Shaelyn Yermal, Sharon Gilbertz and Jill Schneider complete the ensemble.

"Guys and Dolls" is a romantic story about innocuous gangsters and salvation, and Laurel Mill Playhouse's talented youth do more than a credible job with the production.

But Loesser's music and lyrics and the dance numbers, which make the show's heart and soul, require prolific scene changes; one very serious gaffe in basic staging, or in stage-managing, detracted from the opening night performances.

During almost all the blackouts, the backstage remained brightly lit and fully visible. Watching actors bathed in red light adjust their costumes and struggle with furniture and props is something an audience should never see. It continually broke the audience's belief in the moment and destroyed the rhythm of the show as an ensemble.


Although "Guys and Dolls" also lacks fine-tuning in a few other less-important spots, the Knaziks' production mostly lives up to the show's romantic appeal. Snappy melodies and dance numbers, colorful characters, glamorous showmanship and funny dialogue, in concert with the natural beauty and shining talent of every cast member, promises to captivate family and friends.

And Jocelyn Knazik, who grew up on the Laurel Mill Playhouse stage, should be proud of her success as a first-time director. It speaks well for the Playhouse's future.

"Guys and Dolls" continues through Aug. 19, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., at Laurel Mill Playhouse, 508 Main St. General admission is $18. Students, 18 and under; and seniors, 65 and over, pay $15. For reservations, call 301-617-9906 and press 2.

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