Fiftieth anniversaries are celebrated as “golden” and that’s what is happening at University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music as its Musical Theatre program hits the half-century mark this school year. Underscoring this noteworthy moment, a production of Guys and Dolls — one of the best “Golden Age” musicals — is onstage at UC’s Corbett Auditorium through Oct. 27.
The CCM Musical Theatre program was the first of its kind; its four-year curriculum for the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree became the model for accreditation at similar programs nationwide. And students from the school are snagging spots on Broadway, too — in a recent Playbill.com survey, CCM was among the top-three programs placing grads on Broadway. CCM grads have appeared in Aladdin, Anastasia, Beautiful, The Book of Mormon, Chicago, Frozen, Waitress, Girl from the North Country and The Lion King, as well as national tours including Dear Evan Hansen and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, both of which make stops at the Aronoff Center this season.
For three decades, Aubrey Berg has headed the Musical Theatre program at the school. He says that the training is rigorous and adheres to a “triple threat” approach (aka, training in voice, dance and acting). Berg and his colleagues audition roughly 900 students annually in Cincinnati, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. From that, they assemble a freshman class of 18 to 20 students yearly. It’s an elite program: Roughly one in 50 who try out are selected. In addition to stage performers, CCM grads have become musical directors, choreographers, producers and professionals throughout the entertainment industry.
So why choose Guys and Dolls to mark this anniversary? Berg says the theme for the anniversary year is “Moving Forward; Looking Back.” The fall semester features two legendary shows — Godspell is coming in November. Next spring it’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the area premiere of Yeast Nation.
“Guys and Dolls is a golden oldie with a score of songs that have become standards in recordings by Jazz greats such as Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan,” Berg says. Frank Loesser’s 1950 Tony Award-winning show, based on tales of Broadway from the 1930s, has been frequently revived.
The show has numerous roles for singers, dancers and actors, including some classic comic creations like gambler Nathan Detroit and his long-suffering fiancée, Miss Adelaide. There are full-scale dance set pieces such as the gamblers’ ballet set to “Luck Be a Lady,” as well as numbers including “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat.” The diverse numbers give the students a chance to showcase their “triple threat” abilities, Berg says.
The show follows the story of Detroit as he tries to elude authorities while still raising enough cash to set up a big craps game. To land the necessary funds, he challenges fellow gambler Sky Masterson to win the affections of strait-laced missionary Sister Sarah Brown. If Masterson fails, he’ll owe Detroit the money needed for the craps game.
Guys and Dolls’ dance demands made this production a natural for CCM faculty member Diane Lala, who is directing and choreographing. “The dance numbers in the show help set the scene,” she says.
The opener, “Runyonland,” introduces an imaginary Times Square that’s quite unlike its modern NYC incarnation. Lala has put together routines in the Hot Box Club where Miss Adelaide works as a dancer as though someone from that time period and type of establishment put together the choreography. She also has had the opportunity to create dance routines for nightspots in Havana, Cuba, where Sky escorts the uptight Sarah in an attempt to overcome her romantic reserve.
Beyond entertainment, a show like this is an opportunity for education, Berg says.
“Students have researched the period, the lifestyles, the look of the period and the relationships between men and women that the time presented,” he says. He compares what they learn to the research needed for a TV series such as Mad Men.
“The vocal demands for singing (Guys and Dolls’) score are quite different from those required for Jesus Christ Superstar or Rent,” he says. “We always talk about why each musical number is in the show and how we can make it as seamless from the scene and song to the dance. It is important for dance in musical theater to be about something. While dancing, acting cannot be put aside; the acting needs to inform all the movement.”
And in a broad comedy such this show, he says the characterizations need to be carefully controlled “so they do not slip into caricature.”
The show’s traditional Broadway choreography places heavy demands on the dancers. Lala is especially excited about “The Crapshooters’ Ballet,” an iconic number featuring the men.
“This has been a fun number to stage,” she says. “We have a lot of boys who can tumble get a chance to show off some of their skills.”
“We are also doing the new restoration of the original 1950 Broadway orchestration,” she adds.
Scenic design by faculty member Tom Umfrid takes into account the big dance numbers.
A celebratory event on Saturday (Oct. 20) will include a 7 p.m. performance of Guys and Dolls followed by a 9:30 p.m. gala — “The Saints and Sinners Bash” — in the Great Hall of UC’s Tangeman University Center, adjacent to the CCM complex. There will be a Sinners Lounge with music by the CCM Jazz Band. CCMpower, a volunteer group comprised of dedicated fans, advocates and alumni is staging the event. Funds raised will be used for student scholarships and grants. (This event is being produced in lieu of CCM’s popular annual gala, Moveable Feast, which is scheduled to return in January 2020.)
Guys and Dolls, presented by the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, continues through October 27. Tickets to performances other than the Saints and Sinners Bash can be ordered through CCM’s Box Office: 513-556-4183. For gala tickets, call 513-556-2100. For more info, click here.