When Alex Sanchez signed on to choreograph Goodspeed Musicals’ first show of the 2015 season, Frank Loesser’s much-beloved “Guys and Dolls,” he was well aware of the challenges he would face on the Goodspeed Opera House’s postage-stamp sized stage.
The former soloist with Ballet Chicago and performer in over 10 Broadway shows had first appeared on the Goodspeed stage nearly 20 years ago in a production of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Strike Up the Band,” alongside a young virtually unknown fellow ensemble member Kristen Chenoweth, who is of course currently burning up Broadway with her red-hot performance in the revival of “On the Twentieth Century.” Since hanging up his dancing shoes, Sanchez has gone on to establish an active career as a much-in-demand choreographer for such shows as the Playwrights Horizon’s production of “Far From Heaven,” the City Center Encores productions of “Where’s Charley” and “Fiorello,” and the Public Theatre’s production of “Giant.”
After agreeing to create the dances for “Guys and Dolls,” Sanchez explained, “I knew right away what I was getting into. I came up to Goodspeed to see ‘Holiday Inn’ last fall in order to get reacquainted. The production stage manager took me up on stage after the show so I could refamiliarize myself with the space.”
Although “Guys and Dolls” marks the first time that Sanchez and the production’s director Don Stephenson are working together, they have been well aware of each other for quite some time. They first crossed paths at the St. Louis Muny where Stephenson was directing “Titanic” and Sanchez was choreographing “Damn Yankees.” Stephenson, who is married to Frank Loesser’s daughter Emily, caught Sanchez’s work on the Encores’ production of the composer’s “Where’s Charley” and, according to Sanchez, “liked what I did and understood my style of choreography.”
In particular, Sanchez relates, Stephenson liked the humor that the choreographer was able to incorporate into some of the dancing. “I try to make my choreography fun,” Sanchez continues, “and Don wanted to make sure that the choreography in “Guys and Dolls” would enhance and highlight the humor already in the book.”
“I’ve always wanted to do “Guys and Dolls” since I started out,” he explains. “I’ve always thought of it as the perfect American musical, in terms of both story and music. But it eluded me as a dancer. I was never in the right place or at the right time to audition for any of the New York revivals. So now that I’m a choreographer, it’s been on my bucket list. I’ve always wanted to tackle it because of the richness of its score and the colorful characters involved.”
“Guys and Dolls” is musical adaptation of writer Damon Runyon’s short stories about the gangsters, gamblers and other denizens who populate New York’s notorious underworld of floating crap games and burlesque joints and what happens when they cross paths with the devoted members of the area’s Save-A-Soul mission. In addition to Loesser’s score and lyrics, the musical boasts a clever and funny book by one of the finest comedy writers of the early 1950’s, Abe Burrows.
Admitting to being a big fan of the musicals of the 1950’s, Sanchez was also attracted to the show because there’s a lot of dancing in it. “It rivals “West Side Story” for the amount of dancing,” he says. For his preparation, for example, he did a lot of research into burlesque since that was a popular form of entertainment during the time frame of the show and one of “Guys and Dolls” main characters, Miss Adelaide, is a singer and dancer in a burlesque-style show.
One of Sanchez’s goals has indeed been to develop a choreographic style that reflects the personalities of each of the main characters, as in creating dances for the actress Nancy Anderson that encapsulate Miss Adelaide’s very distinctive vernacular or that follow the Salvation Army’s Sarah Brown from being an uptight missionary to a slippery, sliding dance that signals the character’s emergence from her shell. For this latter scene, which takes place in Havana, Sanchez describes how he needed to create movement for Manna Nichols, who plays Sarah, that looks clumsy as she attempts to copy the dancing of a Havana seductress in order to attract the attention of the Sky Masterson of Anthony Roach. “Tony is great,” Sanchez adds, “he brings to the role a natural ability to move gracefully. There’s a subtle coolness in his movement and he falls into them seamlessly.”
Another of Sanchez’s goals has been to include the principals in more of the show’s dancing. He cites in particular Mark Price’s role as Nathan Detroit, who becomes a more active participant in the Crapshooter’s Ballet number than is typically seen, as he maneuvers around the gamblers and tries to manipulate the action. Similarly, characters such as Big Jule, Benny Southstreet and Harry the Horse, who in some other productions remain on the periphery as the ensemble dances, will also play more integral roles in this number as well.
Sanchez also promises some surprises in various numbers which he hopes delight Goodspeed audiences, but assures that “everything is in keeping with the integrity and beauty of the story.” He’s enjoyed this opportunity to work with Stephenson, adding that “Don and I think a lot alike. As we prepared the show, he would throw out an idea and I would throw out an idea and we’d look at each other like how could we be so crazy to think so much alike.” Sanchez admits that “he’s funnier than I am, but also very smart.”
Sanchez reports that he began thinking about transitioning from dancing to choreography while appearing in “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life” on Broadway when that show’s choreographer Graciella Danielle told him that she noticed that he thought like a choreographer and had the mind of a choreographer. “That planted the seed,” he indicates, but he was beaten to the punch by his wife, a dancer named Lainie Sakakura, who was also in “The Dancer’s Life,” who also transitioned to become a choreographer. “I’ve danced in several of her shows,” he adds, before he took the plunge and took on the choreographer’s role for a production of “Damn Yankees.” His wife has been helpful and encouraging, he indicates, as she has been somewhat preoccupied over the past several years raising their two daughters. But she’s back on the boards this season, now performing in the revival of “The King and I” at Lincoln Center.
He’s quite happy to be back at Goodspeed, even if there was a 20- year break, and remembers how positive and supportive Goodspeed audiences can be. He’s also looking forward to his next choreographic assignment, coming up this July, with a production of “Mary Poppins” at Kansas City’s Starlight Theatre.
For information and tickets for “Guys and Dolls,” call the Goodspeed Box Office at 860.873.8668 or visit the Goodspeed website at www.goodspeed.org. “Guys and Dolls” is on stage now through June 20 with a press opening night scheduled for Wednesday, April 29, 2015.