photos by Christine Rucker

So there he is, TJ Nelson, also known in this moment as Joey Biltmore, a big, strapping, slab of a man who at any other college you might take for the star quarterback or otherwise BMOC, but here at the UNC School of the Arts he’s just a featured player in the cast of Guys & Dolls, with a couple of lines as the owner of Biltmore’s Garage and the rest of his time on stage as a member of the sharpie ensemble.

Trouble is, he’s from the School of Drama, under which the production is being staged, but during the big song-and-dance number for the Crapshooters Ball, he can’t keep up with the ringers from the School of Dance who seem near weightless as they go through the motions of the scene.

His feet won’t slide on the floor of the rehearsal space — “Don’t you have jazz shoes?” choreographer Edie Cowan asks. “I’ll have them,” he says — and he’s losing his center of gravity when he spins. And the cartwheel is giving him a lot of trouble.

For this part of the number, which when it reaches the Stevens Center stage will be set with a tall ladder coming down at the rear and slides to either side, Cowan’s scripting an elaborate tumbling pass that will take up perhaps 10 seconds of stage time. They’ve been rehearsing it for 30 minutes already.

She’s got Nelson rolling a couple cartwheels along the back side from stage right to left while dance student Joshua Pagan runs across and hits a standing flip. But Nelson can only cartwheel to his left, which would put his back to the audience. This is unacceptable.

“Are you a lefty?” Cowan asks him.

“No,” he says. “I’ll just face this way for now and I’ll keep practicing.”

Just for the hell of it he tries another cartwheel to his right; it looks more like a tumble down a flight of stairs. He stomps off, berating himself like card player who bet big on an inside straight and missed the draw. He’s got three weeks to get it right, though that clock is running down. Like everything else in life, his odds of hitting it by opening night are 6 to 5, against.

Now dance captain Lindsay Carter, a blonde who looks limber enough to leap over a horse and strong enough to lift one, brings the boys through the rest of the number as director Gus Kaikkonen shouts notes.

“Lindsay? Do we have our toes flexed or pointed?”

“They’re pointed,” she says, still spinning.

“Yes,” he says. “They’re pointed.”

You don’t have to tell her twice. Carter, who attended UNCSA for both high school and college, has a rep as a real up-and-comer.

“She’s in the Cirque du Soleil database,” whispers assistant director Rory Gilbert.

Nothing screams Broadway like Guys & Dolls.

Its debut came in 1950, during the Golden Age of the Great White Way, and it immediately established itself as a work of significance. Frank Loesser’s score — particularly the numbers “Luck Be a Lady,” “I Got the Horse Right Here” and “A Bushel and a Peck” — became instant standards, its storyline absorbed into our national psyche. It eventually took home a Tony, and the only reason it didn’t win the 1951 Pulitzer for drama is because one of the writers, Abe Burrows, was under the thumb of the House Un-American Activities Committee for what might be colloquially described as “pinko tendencies.”

The 1955 film version starred Marlon Brando as the gallant gambler Sky Masterson and Frank Sinatra as diceman Nathan Detroit, and was nominated for four Oscars.

By the time all this happened, the progenitor of this work, the journalist, author and New York City gadabout Damon Runyon had been dead for years.

Runyon settled in for his long dirt nap in 1946, four years before Loesser, Burrows and co-writer Jo Swerling stitched together a few of his short stories and married them with the orchestral maneuvers.

Runyon was born a Kansan, rising up like wheat in the heart of that great, vast spread from whence all good rubes spring forth. But he was a seasoned newspaperman by the time he made his way to New York City in 1910 to cover sports for the New York American. He made his bones in baseball and boxing — he coined the term “Cinderella Man,” applying the appellation to fighter James J. Braddock of New Jersey, who in 1912 took down Max Baer at Madison Square Garden in a 15-round “fistic fairy tale.”

“Coming into the ring on the short end of the unheard-of price of 8 to 1 with even money he does not come out for the tenth round, and with his chances so little regarded that the crowd does not half fill the ‘graveyard of champions,’ Braddock fights from the opening bell with the desperation of a man leading a forlorn hope,” he reported. Even then, Runyon insisted on writing in present tense.

He then headed south, where while covering the Mexican Revolution he chanced upon an old friend named Pancho Villa. At the time Villa was leading the revolutionary forces against the Mexican government. Runyon had met him years ago, during Spring Training in Florida.

Mexico was also where he met his second wife, the former Patrice Amati del Grande. Their union would necessitate a hasty exit from the bonds of his first wife, the former Ellen Egan.

By the time Prohibition came to New York, Runyon was a made man, a prince of the city in three-piece suits and two-toned shoes who carried on with gamblers, entertainers, drunks, athletes, literary celebrities and none too little of the shadier element in the city’s underworld hierarchy.

The reporting he did in the 1920s informed his literary career, a canon populated by hooples and hustlers and men on the make, good girls gone bad and bad girls gone good, who face improbable propositions with illogical methods for unlikely outcomes.

Guys & Dolls synthesizes two of Runyon’s best-known works. “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” introduces the character of Sky Masterson, a high-rolling gambler with a penchant for prop bets who feels love’s sweet sting when missionary Miss Sally Brown comes down to Broadway for the purpose of saving souls. Eventually he realizes that to win this prize he’ll have to play the long con. “Blood Pressure” relates the conflict between the “gorilla” Rusty Charlie and freelance floating casino host Nathan Detroit, unsatisfactorily resolved by the throw of the dice into Rusty Charlie’s hat.

Each piece was an amalgamation of Damon Runyon’s New York, a midtown stretch between Hell’s Kitchen and the East River filled with speakeasies and supper clubs, and the gangsters, freeloaders, confidence men, card-sharks, shysters and other street royalty that populated them.

Runyon would say that he was a mere stenographer, setting up in Lindy’s with an ashtray, a notebook, a cup of coffee and maybe a little cheesecake. The stories wrote themselves.

Guys & Dolls moves the action to the 1950s. Its opening sequence, “Runyonland,” brings together sharpies, flatfoots, speculators, drunks, dames both legit and semi-legit, bookmakers, angle-players and bona fide suckers for a promenade on the thoroughfare.

Two weeks before showtime, in the practice space at UNCSA, most of the 105 members of cast and crew gather in the basement hall for the final run-through before tech rehearsals begin at the Stevens Center, where the set, sound and lighting teams have their way. Thirty-two of them are players in the production, culled from the schools of drama and dance. There are wardrobe people and technical people and executive types and advisors. The musicians in the band will address their sheet music a few days before the first performance, run through it a couple of times and be good to go. The rest of them have been at it for weeks, months even.

“There’s like 10,000 people here,” one of the wardrobe team says to another.

“I know,” her friend says. “Everyone must have heard that this was the last rehearsal before tech. I was like, ‘Sign me up.’”

They begin with a fight.

“Alright, we’re gonna take it from the bullfight, please,” shouts Nick Gordon, fight captain for the production who also portrays the conflicted romantic Nathan Detroit. “Uptempo. Full speed. And guys: Start playing with the bull some more this time.”

They’re in the Havana nightclub after Sky Masteron, against all odds, convinces Miss Sarah Brown to accompany him there. In it, a conga line breaks up into a melee as the participants pair off in combat, with slaps and squeals and smacks, culminating in the ol’ bottle to the head.

Next up we have Masterson squaring off against Big Jule, the Chicago heavy who, despite favorable odds, finds himself face down on the floor after a hastily called meeting between his face and Masterson’s fist.

Then, when everyone’s loose and ready, they get down to it.

Kaikkonen, the director, has the room.

“We would really like to see what we have here and what margin we have…. This is the last time we will be able to do it,” he says.

To the opening strains of “Luck Be a Lady,” the events in Runyonland unfold in the space, and we are introduced to a one Nicely Nicely Johnson and his fellow wiseguy Benny Southstreet, who come upon Rusty Charlie en route to a gambling parlor where fellows such as themselves might have opportunity to wager on games of chance.

There’s word that Nathan Detroit’s floating crap game is looking for safe harbor, that Harry the Horse is in from Brooklyn and that Big Jule has winged it all the way from Chicago for a chance to try his luck against the dice.

Runyon’s gangsters are tough guys, to be sure, but watered down for the Broadway audience. And while there’s plenty of softcore violence in Guys & Dolls, it’s mostly the fist and open hand variety. Big Jule is the only one with a gun, and he’s not afraid to wave it around.

The history of UNCSA is written in togas, flouncy dresses, rumpled hats and tights in the space they call “Narnia,” a mid-sized warehouse off of the costume shop. Here are the frilly cowboy clothes from Oklahoma!, last staged in 2011, and the Cardinal suit from ’Tis a Pity She’s a Whore, staged in 2013. Hanging on a high rack are the plaids and polka dots from West Side Story, an all-school production back in 2007. The room has been filling for 50 years, going back to the 1966 student production of The Nutcracker, performed at Reynolds Auditorium.

“There are things in here that our teachers had made here when they were in school, which is cool,” says fourth-year drama student Colleen Hall, who helmed the costume department for Guys & Dolls.

She started looking at gangster fashion from the 1950s and ’60s last May to flesh out the wardrobes of Sky Masterson, Nathan Detroit and the rest of the leads.

“There’s a little from the 1920s, too,” she says. “I wanted something a little more sleek and tailored for the men.”

Fitted in the waist. Wide lapels. And because they will all be dancing, she built a wide-leg trouser for each look.

For the dream sequence, when Miss Sarah Brown and Nathan Detroit’s girl Adelaide get together to sing “Marry the Man Today,” she has Nathan Detroit pushing a lawnmower in high-waisted slacks, a straw fedora and a vintage 1940s Ricky jacket.

“It’s named after Ricky Ricardo,” she says.

Every lead character has a palette and a look for each act, down to the hat and shoes. They’ll need tuxedos and gambling attire, and something to wear in Havana. It’s all listed in her show bible, a binder as thick as Big Jule’s neck, which is considerably thicker than the necks of less substantial men.

Damon Runyon died years before Guys & Dolls would permanently etch his name in the pavement of Broadway. And there’s no telling what he would have made of the work Loesser and Burrows bestowed upon a ravenous public, other than that he likely would have wanted his piece of the action.

He was no auteur — Runyon was a populist, and even in his best work his characters are two-dimensional, his plot twists contrived, his material somewhat limited to the things he overheard at Lindy’s.

But he was biggest hardboiled newspaper columnist of his era, a shot of rotgut whiskey to the Ovaltine of Walter Winchell, and created a vocabulary and voice that has come to define the gangster genre.

Runyon always wrote in first person, even back in his newspaper days; every single one of his short stories is written in first-person present, also known as the “historic present.” Scholars have found just one instance of past tense in all of Runyon’s literary efforts: “The Lily of St. Pierre” from the Dec. 20, 1930 issue of Colliers Weekly, a bit about “Good Time Charley Bernstein’s little joint in Forty-eighth Street” written in a style that seems to have been cribbed by JD Salinger.

The archetypes he created persist throughout the stage and screen.

Nicely Nicely Johnson set the precedent for Jimmy Two Times from Goodfellas. “Gonna go get the papers, get the papers.” Nathan Detroit’s overwrought prose — “Would you not agree that Mindy’s cheesecake is the best cheesecake alive?” — was followed by a line of stage and screen gangsters that includes Fat Tony from “The Simpsons,” who once told Krusty the Clown: “We’re only letting the bet ride because you crack us, so consistently, up.” Even Bugs Bunny could be described as “Runyonesque.”

And we still use the language he invented to chronicle his day.

Runyon coined the terms “Dream Team,” “zillion,” “kisser” and “phedinkus,” a word the meaning of which, if indeed ever it had one, has been lost to the ages. A Runyon character didn’t get in trouble; he got in a “jam,” that could conceivably end up with him in the “clink,” unless he took it “on the lam” to some “burg” where no one knew him.

His story “Little Miss Marker,” about a little girl sent to live with gangsters by her father, was made into a film in 1934 starring Shirley Temple, and has been remade for the screen three times.

He’s also credited with convincing Leo Seltzer to create the sport known as roller derby.

Down in the rehearsal space, Kyle Habberstad’s Sky Masterson has gotten the girl, only to lose her when she discovers that Nathan Detroit and the gang held a craps game in the Mission while she was falling in love in Havana.

But Big Jule is still in town, and he wants to shoot crap. Detroit, in a pinch, brings the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York down into the sewer, introduced in Scene 3 with the Crapshooters Ball sequence.

Our man TJ Nelson is ready for this moment, rolling his shoulders like a boxer in his new soft shoes and getting his game face together.

As the music starts the dancers slide into place on the floor and Pagan preps for the run-up to his flip. But hold the phone: Carter’s changed the choreography, allowing Nelson to cartwheel to his left, which he accomplishes with consummate ease.

A gambling man could have made a pretty penny with a piece of inside information like that.

The UNCSA School of Drama production of Guys & Dolls runs through April 19.

4 COMMENTS

  1. So there he is, Brian Clarey, also known as the Editor-in-chief of the Triad City Beat, a skinny, balding, stick of a man who at any place you would take for the douche hipster or otherwise “who is that guy?”, but in the world of journalism he is just a dick.

    They are called rehearsals “a practice or trial performance of a play or other work for later public performance” for a reason. The performers in this play are students and thus they are still learning their trade. I understand that this type of scrutiny is common place for their profession but to single out an individual who not to belittle his role in any way is not a main character is pretty small of you sir.

    • Zing! Pretty good Runyon.
      It was absolutely not my intent to belittle any of the students in the production — it was amazing, and if I didn’t get that across the fault is mine.
      What I was trying to show with that particular narrative, which I tried to tell in the Runyon voice, was how hard these kids work, how different this school is, and the progress the group made in a few short weeks.
      Apologies if I gave that impression. It’s not the first time I’ve been called a dick. Not even the first time today.

  2. TJ Nelson is a rising star. I am not at all surprised that he caught your attention and imagination. This will be a very charming article to look back on, as the world gets to know this kid.
    Good job.

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