Two classic musicals hit Richmond stages, but their differences vastly outweigh their similarities. 

Everything Old is New Again

Two of Richmond's premier theater companies roll out their big holiday musicals next week. Both of these are legendary Broadway shows sporting large casts, brimming with spectacle and sparkling with familiar tunes. But that's where the similarity between these productions will end. Swift Creek Mill Theatre promises a classic version of Frank Loesser's perennial favorite from 1950, "Guys and Dolls," full of gangsters, chorus girls, big voices and bawdy comedy. Meanwhile, Barksdale Theatre has reworked the 1945 Rogers and Hammerstein masterpiece "Carousel" into a smaller, more stylistically challenging piece to fit its intimate in-the-round theater space. These shows will offer a fascinating study in contrasts and guarantee that there will be something to please everyone in local theaters this season. "Carousel" will mark the return of New York-based director Jack Cummings III to the Barksdale where he has wowed most theater-goers — and befuddled some — with his daring and dynamic staging of "Violet" last year, "She Loves Me" in 1998 and "Young Man from Atlanta" in 1997. Cummings' shows — with their distinctive visual flair and occasional esoteric elements — often surprise Richmonders, who expect a more naturalistic storytelling style. "When people in Richmond say they think of [my work] as experimental or odd or weird, I always kind of laugh," says Cummings, who is more amiable and self-possessed in person than one would expect from a big city auteur. "I've seen real experimental work, and my stuff would be considered completely mild in comparison." Cummings, 32, is no stranger to the area, having grown up in Richmond and graduated from the University of Virginia. But most of the year, he works at the Lark Theatre in New York, where he helps to develop and stage new plays. Though his work is defined by his style, he almost cringes at that word. "In the wrongs hands, [style] can be something that is imposed on top of something," Cummings asserts. "I firmly believe that what I put onstage comes from the script." Even without Cummings' stylistic tendencies, "Carousel" would have needed retooling for the Barksdale. The bittersweet drama tells the story of a poor carousel barker, Billy Bigelow, and his troubled relationship with his wife, Julie Jordan. Billy commits suicide out of desperation, but, once in heaven, he is granted one day back on earth to help his daughter. The play focuses on these three characters but its full cast can be upwards of 50 people. The musical score calls for a full orchestra — not an option at the Barksdale. Before Cummings agreed to do the show, he spent weeks studying the script. "I had to figure out how I was going to tell the story within the physical constraints of the space," he explains. "Then I had to go farther and ask, 'How can I use the space to make the show stronger?'" He eventually trimmed the cast to 15 adults and 12 children. He also arranged for the score to be reorchestrated for string quintet. Even though he pushes the theatrical envelope, Cummings says he has received nothing but support from the Barksdale. "When I agreed to do the show, I told [Barksdale's artistic director] Randy Strawderman the only way we can do this is if we kind of jump off a cliff here," Cummings remembers. "Randy is completely trusting. I don't take that for granted, it means a lot to me." Tom Width, Swift Creek Mill's longtime resident director, won't be getting near any cliffs with his production of "Guys and Dolls." With the show, Width returns to a popular crowd-pleaser after his last two more daring musical efforts at the Mill: the plotless "Songs for a New World" that just closed last week, and last spring's subterranean drama, "Floyd Collins." Width argues that this is one classic that isn't worth tampering with. "I'm not going to take something like ["Guys and Dolls"] and change it around," Width says. "I'm not trying to skew it in a new vein. Our audience wants to see the classic show." And that's just what Width is planning to give them, relying in part on the boisterous energy of Scott Wichmann as Nathan Detroit, the perpetually engaged crapshooting gangster. Wichmann first hit the Richmond big time at the Barksdale in his role as Frank Sinatra in last year's big holiday musical, "Ella and her Fella Frank." "Guys and Dolls" will be Wichmann's debut at the Mill, and Width has nothing but good things to say about him. "He's a bundle of energy and really, really fun to work with," he says. Wichmann, who has worked with many of Richmond's top talents, says, "Tom is just the best director for a show like this. He knows the pace and the setup by the numbers. A period piece like this might be considered cheesy unless you know how to sell it." At the Barksdale, Cummings will also rely on a prominent local talent. He precast Debra Wagoner, who gave a heart-rending performance in Cummings' "Violet" last year, as "Carousel's" hopeful and trusting Julie Jordan. "I think without a doubt she is one of the most talented artists I've ever worked with," Cummings says with enthusiasm. "She has a wealth of natural talent and is blessed with a huge heart." According to Wagoner, the admiration is mutual. But the actress concedes that working with Cummings is challenging "With Jack, I always know it's going to be different — something new — and that's a good thing," she says. "It's hard, hard work but I keep coming back for more."

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