Boys and girls learning the ropes in ‘Guys and Dolls’ |

Boys and girls learning the ropes in ‘Guys and Dolls’

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesMiles Craft, Conrad Noel and Tyler Gruel, left to right, are featured in the Jayne Gottlieb Productions version of "Guys and Dolls," playing Saturday and Sunday, April 10-11, at the Basalt Middle School Theatre.

BASALT – For last summer’s production of “The Sound of Music,” Jayne Gottlieb had her team of children humming like a happy kitten. Despite the biggest cast yet for a show by her five-year-old Jayne Gottlieb Productions, and an outdoor setting – Basalt’s Arbaney Park – and all the challenges and potential disasters that presents, everyone and everything seemed to be in their places. Parents were pitching in with offstage issues, and the team of older children whom Gottlieb had turned into stage managers and assistant directors was stepping up to help with onstage matters.

Last summer is looking especially sunny and bright now for Gottlieb. Her latest production, “Guys and Dolls,” playing this weekend at the Basalt Middle School Theatre, is for the younger kids; the actors are 6 to 13. More significant, virtually all of the lead players are stepping into the spotlight for the first time. And so, at a rehearsal four days before the opening curtain, Gottlieb is addressing principles she thought had already been drummed into her corps of kids.

“Things like, You have to play to an audience, that you have to face an audience, that feed need to be glued facing front – that’s a basic, the number one thing. And now I’m teaching it again,” Gottlieb said. “So much of me has been spoiled. It takes time. I’m having to learn to be patient. That’s definitely a challenge for me.”

With the challenge, though, have come specific rewards. One of the big ones has been the emergence of the guys. Children’s theater tends to attract loads of girls, but for boys, some shaking of the trees is often required. “Guys and Dolls,” Frank Loesser’s 1950 musical of Damon Runyon’s stories of New York City gamblers and their ladies, is heavy on the guys. Fortunately, they turned out in droves. Gottlieb said the announcement of “Guys and Dolls,” a relatively lighthearted musical compared to the more serious material the company has tackled – “A Chorus Line,” “The Sound of Music,” this summer’s “Hair” – was welcomed by participants and parents. Among the cast of 47 are 10 boys.

“Because it’s got gamblers and gangsters and zoot suits,” Gottlieb said. “For ‘Guys and Dolls,’ having guys is very important. Because it’s all about their dynamic – guys having their dolls, how they treat them and keep them.”

When the subject of the boys comes up, Gottlieb’s enthusiasm bubbles to the top. Corey Simpson, the company’s music director, calls the new crop of boys “bright cuties who are our bright, shiny new cuties.” The two point to Carter Graham, a 7-year-old who had a bit role this past winter in “White Christmas,” and is now featured as the gambler Harry the Horse.

“He was the conductor in ‘White Christmas’ who could barely say his one line. You couldn’t understand what he said,” Gottlieb noted. “Now, he’s worked his tail off, and he has maybe 30 lines and he’s great. If that’s where our company’s going, that’s incredible.”

Ten-year-old Preston Hageman plays the cop, Lieutenant Brannigan. “He’s hilarious. Big voice. And so willing to go 100 percent into his character and just be silly and out there,” Simpson said. Starring as Nathan Detroit is 11-year-old Lyon Hamill. “He’s another new face,” Gottlieb said, “and he’s going to be leading-man material from now on. He’s new to it so he has a lot to learn. But he absorbs everything you give him.”

Also stepping up, to play the pious mission leader Sarah Brown, is 11-year-old Danielle Erickson. Erickson, who has appeared in smaller roles before, is the daughter of Tom Erickson, a longtime cast member at the Crystal Palace; Gottlieb and Simpson are starting to see her performance gene kicking in.

A relative veteran is Calli Ferguson, an 11-year-old who has already demonstrated an abundance of brassy comedic talent playing the Baroness in “The Sound of Music” and the mother-in-law in “Bye Bye Birdie.” In “Guys and Dolls,” she is featured as Adelaide, the nightclub singer who has been dating Nathan for 14 years and is antsy to get married. Ferguson gets a star turn with the number “Adelaide’s Lament.”

Ferguson, though, is the exceptions in “Guys and Dolls” – one of the few who has been drilled in such basics as facing the audience and projecting her voice. For the rest – well, Gottlieb still had three full days, her high energy, and a track record of turning inexperienced kids into white-hot grease fires of pure entertainment.

“The last time I was doing this, I was new – 23, I think,” Gottlieb said of teaching the fundamentals of performing. “I was just learning this stuff. Our skills at teaching the basics have come a long way.”

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