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Kennedy Center ups the Broadway ante with starry ‘Guys and Dolls’

Jessie Mueller, James Monroe Iglehart, Phillipa Soo and Steven Pasquale will feature in the return of a celebrated concert series

James Monroe Iglehart and members of the ensemble perform “Magic to Do” from “Pippin” during the “50 Years of Broadway” concert at the Kennedy Center in February. Iglehart soon stars in “Guys and Dolls” at the arts center. (Scott Suchman)
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Recruiting a bushel and a peck of top-tier talent, the Kennedy Center is restarting its highly regarded Broadway Center Stage series in October with an expanded schedule, an upgraded format and a timeless property: Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows’s “Guys and Dolls.”

The arts center’s got the warhorse right here, with a posse of polished riders for this musical based on Damon Runyon’s New York yarns: Jessie Mueller as Miss Adelaide, the showgirl who wants to hear wedding bells; James Monroe Iglehart as Nathan Detroit, her hard-luck eternal fiance; Phillipa Soo as Salvation Army soul-saver Sarah Brown and Steven Pasquale as dashing, high-rolling Sky Masterson. The caliber of its above-the-title stars, announced by the center Tuesday, makes especially noteworthy the first show in the series since the pre-pandemic “Next to Normal” in January 2020.

The evolution of the musicals-in-concert series — which later in the season includes revivals of “Sunset Boulevard,” with Stephanie Block as Norma Desmond, and “Kiss of the Spider Woman” — continues, too. By agreement with Actors’ Equity, the union representing professional actors and stage managers, the number of performances for each production has been increased, from eight to 10, and some staging restrictions relaxed. No longer, Kennedy Center officials say, will any of the actors carry their scripts onstage, a practice that was a concession to short rehearsal periods but that over time has proved an encumbrance.

The changes will permit more ambitious stagings and more complete choreography, according to Jeffrey Finn, the center’s vice president and executive producer of theater, who created Broadway Center Stage. “These will be much fuller productions,” Finn explained. “That said, I still want to showcase the musicians onstage like we always have in the past. I feel like that’s an exciting part of what Center Stage is.” (Upward of 30 orchestra members will be used for “Guys and Dolls.”)

Beginning in February 2018 with a reworked version of the musical “Chess” with Raul Esparza and Karen Olivo (who now goes by KO), the series has become a magnet for musical theater lovers as well as for marquee-name actors and directors attracted by the short commitment. From first rehearsal to final performance, the job requires only a month. “Getting in and out quick is one of the things that I love to do,” Iglehart said in a phone interview, noting that he is one of the founding members of the popular hip-hop improv troupe, “Freestyle Love Supreme.”

Iglehart, who won a Tony for “Aladdin” and who emceed the February concert celebrating 50 years of Broadway musicals at the Kennedy Center, is now part of the talent network Finn has been building. Mueller, a Tony winner for “Beautiful: The Carol King Musical,” played Marian the librarian in the Center Stage revival of “The Music Man” in 2019, a production with Norm Lewis as Prof. Harold Hill that in my estimation was superior to the current Broadway version with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster.

Soo, who is playing Cinderella in Broadway’s “Into the Woods,” is married to Pasquale, who recently portrayed John Wilkes Booth in an off-Broadway revival of “Assassins.” “Guys and Dolls” is the first time as a married couple they’ll be together in a show.

The concert format’s advantages — including economy and emphasis on words and music over lavish sets — have been evidenced numerous times. John Kander, Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse’s “Chicago” started at the Encores series in New York in 1996 and has played more than 10,000 Broadway performances. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods” was staged by director Lear deBessonet earlier this year at the Encores home base at City Center before moving on to the St. James Theatre, where it will now run through Oct. 16.

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No Broadway Center Stage production has yet moved on from the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, where “Guys and Dolls” will run from Oct. 7 to 16. Finn, though, has that aspiration in mind. The Kennedy Center production of “Chess,” for instance, was regarded as a test for a show with a great score (by Abba’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, and Tim Rice) and a weak book, or libretto. And others, such as “The Who’s Tommy” in 2019, were conceived with such verve and freshness that a longer life somewhere else seemed possible.

But such wishes remain unfulfilled. “I produce them first and foremost for the Kennedy Center and for our audiences,” Finn said. “I’m confident that at the right moment, the stars will align to make a proper transfer happen. There just hasn’t been that moment yet. But I’m eager to have the stars align.”

“Guys and Dolls” will be staged by Marc Bruni, who directed Mueller in both “Beautiful” and “The Music Man,” and will feature music direction by Kevin Stites and choreography by Denis Jones. “It was the first musical that I saw on Broadway from the golden age,” Bruni said, of a 1992 revival starring Nathan Lane and Faith Prince. “I went on a school trip and went twice more to see it. I was so enamored with what musical comedy could do.”

For Iglehart, getting his shot at Nathan Detroit adds a chapter to a family story. His father, he said in an interview, played Sky Masterson in high school in Oakland Calif., at a time when the production was segregated: Black and White students performed the show separately, Iglehart recalled.

“I always loved Frank Sinatra and I fell in love with Nathan Detroit,” the actor said, referring to the 1955 movie version that also starred Vivian Blaine, Jean Simmons and Marlon Brando. He sang music from “Guys and Dolls” in his own high school show choir in Hayward, Calif., and played one of Nathan’s sidekicks, Benny Southstreet, in a Bay Area community theater production.

It seems apt that Iglehart won his Tony playing the genie in “Aladdin.” Because he’s surely now been granted one of his own three wishes.

Guys and Dolls tickets are available now for purchase by Kennedy Center members, and go on sale to the general public Thursday. 202-467-4600.