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Sky's The Limit

By: Mark Blankenship
Date: Jun 09, 2009


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By Mark Blankenship

As Sky Masterson in the current Broadway revival of  Guys and Dolls, Craig Bierko has asked luck to be a lady hundreds of times since the production opened last fall at the Nederlander Theatre. 
Since he's been playing Sky for months, Bierko is faced with the particular challenges of a long run. How can he recreate the same story over and over without letting his work get stale? How can he stay as invested on day two hundred as he was on day one?

Part of live theater's allure, of course, is that no two performances are ever the same. There's always something, be it an especially enthusiastic audience or an unexpectedly missing prop, that gives each day its own personality. "Those things always keep you focused," Bierko says, "but with 'Guys and Dolls,' I'm also fortunate to have a great dance partner in Kate Jennings Grant. She helps me keep it alive and fresh."

Grant, a veteran actress last seen on Broadway in David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Proof, plays Sarah Brown, a buttoned-down Salvation Army officer in 1930s Manhattan who tries to guide the gangsters and gamblers in her neighborhood toward a more spiritual life. In a classic twist, she ends up swooning for Sky, one of the biggest sinners in town. Their relationship---detailed in some of composer Frank Loesser's most memorable songs, like "I've Never Been In Love Before"---gives the show some of its most resonant, emotional moments.

Bierko says his rapport with Grant empowers them both to keep refining their performances. In mid-May, for instance, months after they started working together, the co-stars agreed to try something new. Bierko says, "One night, we decided we were going to extract a bit of physical business that we had in our first moment together. It had never really connected, never gotten a laugh, so we decided to take it out. And it worked."

But while actors in long runs may keep themselves engaged by tweaking their performances, they shouldn't make haphazard changes. "As long as you stay within in the genre you're in, and that your production is in, good material will support you as you deepen your work," Bierko says. He adds that knowing what to take away from a performance---like that physical bit he and Grant excised---is also crucial. "When you add too much to material that already works, you're not helping anything. You don't paint flames on a Ferrari. That won't make it go any faster."

Bierko is no stranger to solid material. In 2000 he made his Broadway debut as Harold Hill in director Susan Stroman's celebrated revival of  The Music Man, earning a Tony nomination for the role. 'The Music Man is pretty hard to beat, and that's why I felt incredibly fortunate to be asked to be part of 'Guys and Dolls,'" he says. "To me, Guys and Dolls is a masterpiece."

Afters months of performing, Bierko's enthusiasm for the show hasn't waned. He savors the redemptive structure of the plot, which sends the shifty characters to an illicit poker game held in a sewer,
and then contrives to get them all above ground in Sarah's mission, where they have a change of heart. Seen from afar, that journey can be appreciated as an archetypal story of men sinking into hell before rising up to be reborn. "I feel like one of the reasons the play resonates with people is that the story itself is so spiritually affirming," Bierko says. "A bunch of monks could see this show and be uplifted by the story."

In this production, Bierko's favorite moment comes when gangster Nicely Nicely (played by Titus Burgess) drops to his knees and admits he needs salvation during the rousing, classic number "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat." Bieroko says, "This character is so moved that his soul shoots out of his chest. It's moving to watch a guy like that humble himself."

Appreciation for the material aside, Bierko has a uniquely personal reason to savor his turn as Sky. His parents run a community theater in his hometown of Rye Brook, New York, and when he was a boy, he watched his mother play Miss Adelaide, a showgirl whose dysfunctional relationship with gangster Nathan Detroit forms the show's second major storyline.

"Seeing my mom play Adelaide was fantastic," he says. "Now my mom comes to see me in the show. It's nice. It's a full circle."

(Note: since this article was published, it was announced the Guys and Dolls will play its final performance on June 15.)

read more about Guys and Dolls here
Mark Blankenship