By Matt Hickman
Headquartered in Juneau, Perseverance Theater starts pretty much all of its show runs in the state capitol.
For the cast, that means a couple week’s break before the show transitions to the Performing Arts Center, and for Evan Carson and Boogie Wells, Anchorage-based performers in the season finale ‘Guys and Dolls’, it means a chance to relax at home for a bit before returning to the stage.
Guys and Dolls, which first hit Broadway in 1950 and known by most from the film adaptation of 1955 starring Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons and Frank Sinatra, premieres in Anchorage for a 10-day run starting Friday night with a pay-as-you-can preview night set for Thursday, May 2.
Carson, who plays the villainous role of gambler Big Jule, said the Juneau run was a hit and he expects things to only get bigger and better as the venue shifts to Alaska’s largest city.
“It’s a classic crowd-pleaser of a musical comedy put on by Alaska regional theater, performed by an all-Alaskan cast that knocked it out of the park and sold it out almost every night in Juneau,” Carson said.
Carson, a fourth-generation Alaskan, is doing his fourth production with Perseverance, his last being last year’s season-finale of ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ where he played the role of LeBret. He said the biggest challenge of putting on Guys and Dolls is trying to put on such a big, brassy and sassy piece with a significantly smaller cast than is usual.
“We’ve been doing it since early February until last week, so it’s been a long time,” he said. “The show’s got a lot of moving parts and we’ve got 15 really talented and diverse all-Alaskan actors. It’s usually done with 30 to 35 cast members.... People think of the show and how big it is, a bunch of people going through the streets. Our director, Shona (Osterhaut) called it a cabaret-style band, and we’ve got some really talented musicians. It’s kind of a really tight-knit, all Alaska ensemble of actors and everyone is extremely funny, too.”
Willis is in her first show with Perseverance after starting her acting career seven years ago in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ at Valley Performing Arts in Wasilla.
“I’m in the ensemble as one of the hot box dancers; also a craps-shooter, one of the Havana dancers, so I’m busy the entire show, which is great,” she said. “Some of the songs are pretty hard, but we really worked together and we really drill on our own time. It’s definitely a challenge, especially with the small cast trying to hit all of these harmonies — if one person is off, it’s a lot more noticeable — and it’s a challenge on the dancing side, too. I think all of us had our butts kicked in the best possible way. I’ve grown so much as a dancer in this show.”
Willis moved to Alaska from her hometown in Southern California nine years ago at the invitation of a pen pal. Willis was eager to jump at the offer, and though she’d had some experience in California with various artistic pursuits, but never in live theater.
One day, at her job at a bagel shop in Wasilla in 2012, Willis saw a poster for an invitation to try out for The Wizard of Oz and figured, why not?
“I never gave theater a lot oat all, so I asked my friends, ‘should I do this?’ and three of them came with me to the audition to support. I did it, got it and thought, this was the best!” Willis said. “It just kind of awakened something in me. I was always kind of artistic with other dabblings, but it really sparked something.”
Willis went on to get roles in Valley-based films, ‘Moose: The Movie’, where she played the role of Berta James, and 12:34 in the role of Jane.
Willis hadn’t seen Guys and Dolls live or on the silver screen, but once she found out about the part, she immediately watched the film. She admitted that adjusting to some of the old-fashioned language and morays was a ‘cringy’ challenge — starting with the antiquated phrase ‘Dolls’ in the title — but she appreciated some of the updates Osterhaut introduced in the Perseverance version.
“There were a few obvious things that were, ‘yikes’, a bit cringey, what am I getting myself into? But I think Shona has handled it really well,” Willis said. “The two female characters — Adelaide and Sarah Brown — their characters are so much more fleshed out than in the movie.”
For its time, Guys and Dolls was somewhat shocking in its open portrayal of gambling and womanizing and making a mockery of religious purity, but now is more striking for its outdated appreciation of gender roles.
“It has things like religion and the mission wanting the purify and bring immoral gamblers to light; and it has a lot of questions of morality — classic questions — and the norms of the time,” Carson said. “Like you said, it’s a little dated, but what I love, too about what Shona did with it was bring a lot of equity and parity to the show. You look at the people in the mission and they’re all men and women. Even the women craps shooters are clearly female craps shooter — there’s not makeup or mustaches; there’s just gamblers who happen to be women. It was a fantastic job by our director making it more contemporary, more relatable.”
Carson, who grew up in Anchorage but didn’t begin acting until late in high school and then more seriously when he majored in theater at Arizona State University, graduating two years ago, said focusing the plot-point somewhat more on the female characters helps take some of the old-timey edge off.
“I think the show is very aware of itself,” he said. “Enrique Bravo, who plays Sky Masterson and James Sullivan as Nathan Detroit, are betting at the beginning of the show and say, ‘Oh, I like to travel light; I don’t need a doll to weigh me down,’ because gambling comes first and you’re a chump to want to get married.... The societal standards are honest to that text, but the path they go on is they get redeemed. It’s a classic show; the hero repents, gives up gambling and marries the ‘beautiful mission doll,’ as he would say in the end, so it’s changed. But there’s a lot of dated stuff and it’s honest.”