Nick DeGruccio previews ‘Guys and Dolls.’
By Don Maines
Photo by Os Galindo
The Hot Box nightclub is muy caliente in the latest Theatre Under The Stars production of Guys and Dolls.
That’s because the show is Latin-inspired, says director Nick DeGruccio, who previously ignited Lin-Manuel Miranda’s breakthrough musical In the Heights with a hip-hop/salsa beat in the 2016–17 season of TUTS. Miranda, of Hamilton fame, won his first Tony Award for scoring In the Heights, a lavish valentine to his mostly Hispanic Washington Heights neighborhood in the Big Apple.
The box-office success of In the Heights in Houston led the openly gay DeGruccio to consider Guys and Dolls as another attraction that would appeal to Hispanic audiences. The musical about the colorful denizens of New York City’s underworld won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1951. Setting the entire show around a Copacabana-type nightclub, where “music and passion are always the fashion,” is a new concept.
“I realized, after some research, that Guys and Dolls lined up perfectly with the big influx of people to New York City from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico,” DeGruccio says. “They created the city’s Latin Quarter, which had clubs and showgirls and immigrants who resorted to some criminal behavior, even though the characters are all lovable in the show.”
DeGruccio feels “very surprised” that nobody has previously tried depicting the show’s gamblers, mobsters, and molls as Latinos. The main characters, created by the Prohibition-era newsman Damon Runyon, include Nathan Detroit, who curates “the oldest established, permanent, floating crap game in New York” in venues ranging from a church basement to a giant storm sewer; his long-suffering girlfriend, Hot Box headliner Miss Adelaide, who is miffed that Nathan keeps postponing their wedding (what a spitfire she will be!); handsome high-roller Sky Masterson (played by a magnetic Marlon Brando in the 1955 movie version); and frigid Sergeant Sarah Brown from the Save-a-Soul Mission. Sky Masterson sets out to romance Brown after Nathan Detroit bets him $1,000 that the prim and proper sergeant won’t fly to Havana, Cuba, with the high-roller.
Supporting roles go to small-time crooks with names like Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Benny Southstreet, and Harry the Horse.
“Primarily, we have Latinos playing most of the parts, and they ad lib in Spanish,” DeGruccio says. “An exception is that we cast Sarah as a Caucasian, which creates a little more tension between her and Sky Masterson. We get to show love crossing ethnic lines.”
Mischievously, he adds, “The show isn’t gay per se, but I think the LGBTQ community will appreciate how inclusive our production is, and how we are celebrating our community through its diversity. Reading the material with the dialect of Latinos just feels right. It’s wonderful. I think it’s going to be hysterically funny, as well as heartwarming.”
Guys and Dolls has always had loads of heart, along with one of Broadway’s most beloved musical scores.
DeGruccio, who grew up in Commack on Long Island, now lives in Los Angeles where he’s a freelance director and college theater teacher. “I love teaching,” he says. “There is something about seeing students’ eyes light up when they’re learning. Of course, they keep you young.”
DeGruccio’s interest in theater began when he was 15 and saw a production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus, in which a British psychiatrist considers sexual attraction and religious mythology as possible motivating factors for a naked stable boy blinding six horses. “The intensity and thrilling nature of it hit me like a ton of bricks,” he says. “I started auditioning for high school plays.”
Next, enrolling in the theater department in nearby Hofstra University, DeGruccio found himself surrounded by gays and lesbians. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, everybody’s like me.’ I came flying out of the closet.”
Next up for DeGruccio will be a trip to Florida to direct the September 5–October 7 production of In the Heights at the Orlando Shakespeare Festival.
What: Guys and Dolls
When: June 12–24
Where: Theatre Under The Stars
Tickets: TUTS.com or 713.558.8887
This article appears in the June 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.