“Guys and Dolls” is a story about hustlers, heavies, gamblers, gangsters and good-for-nothings, but its central conflict is one of relatively low stakes. Sure, our heroes are always hightailing it from cops, and every once in a while someone pulls a gun, but the real risk is that their gals will finally tell them to get lost. In that respect, the dolls are almost more important than the guys: Nathan Detroit and Sky Masterson are among Broadway’s most iconic characters, but they don’t get as many big production numbers as their female counterparts.
Spokane Civic Theatre opened “Guys and Dolls” this weekend, a bright and energetic adaptation directed by Melody Deatherage and choreographed by Troy Nickerson. Based on the celebrated writings of Damon Runyon, “Guys and Dolls” drops us headlong into the bustle of mid-20th century New York City. We meet Nathan Detroit (the always dependable Patrick McHenry-Kroetch), a smooth operator whose illegal craps games, held in a different secret location every week, have made him an underground legend and a primary target of the police.
In order to pay a security deposit on a proposed gambling site, Nathan places a bet with reckless gambler Sky Masterson (a cool and calculated Andrew Ware Lewis): Nathan will choose a random woman on the street, and Sky must convince her to have dinner with him in Havana. If she turns him down, he has to pay up.
Nathan’s target is the sunny, good-natured Sarah Brown (Caryssa Murphy), who runs a local religious mission with her grandfather (Gary Pierce). She’s immediately hesitant (for obvious reasons), but to persuade her to go, Sky offers to bring a dozen sinners to Sarah’s failing mission. She agrees, and they start to grow close during their stopover in Cuba. Meanwhile, nightclub performer Miss Adelaide (Tanya Barton) demands that Nathan give up his gambling ways and finally make good on their 14-year engagement.
Will Nathan abandon the criminal life and marry Adelaide? Will Sky be able to save the mission? Will Sarah see past Sky’s impulsiveness and embrace him? Need you ask? This kind of plot was already as old as the hills before it became a Broadway sensation and a popular 1955 film. Despite its hardscrabble characters, “Guys and Dolls,” like the Runyon stories that inspired it, is a fiercely sentimental, no-nonsense show, one that’s more about nerve than narrative.
These kinds of warhorse shows tend to allow for scene-stealing supporting performances, and there are quite a few in “Guys and Dolls.” Todd Kehne, as yo-yo swinging Nicely-Nicely Johnson, brings all the energy of a revivalist meeting to “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” which might be the show’s best song not called “Luck Be a Lady.” Another vocal standout is “More I Cannot Wish You,” which isn’t a particularly memorable ballad but is sensitively performed by Pierce.
I mentioned that the female characters are the most interesting in “Guys and Dolls,” possibly because they refuse to be sidelined by the shortsighted gender politics of the era. Barton as Adelaide and Murphy as Sarah demand your attention whenever they’re onstage, and they make the most of their big solos: “Take Back Your Mink,” sung energetically by Barton and her talented ensemble, is an excellent kiss-off song; Murphy, who possesses an almost angelic voice, gets to ham it up with “If I Were a Bell,” which Sarah bumbles through after one too many Bacardis.
Although its physical design is relatively simple, the Civic’s production pops from a visual standpoint, with its candy-colored zoot suits and pop art-inspired dresses. David Baker’s set, an abstract collage of light-up marquees and neon signs, visually suggests the bustle of 1950s Times Square through its economic design. Particularly memorable is Sky and Sarah’s excursion to Havana, which is lit with an evocative red glow and features cool geometric palm trees that seem to glow in the dark.
Shows like “Guys and Dolls” tend to be as reliable as Nathan Detroit himself, and Civic likes to trot them out as season closers (its 2001-02 season wrapped up with “Guys and Dolls”). It’s a safe bet because shows like this are universally beloved, and it’s nearly guaranteed that people will show up. But a lot of these old-school musicals can sometimes feel bloated and top-heavy, with too many songs and not enough substance. Yet I’m relieved to discover that “Guys and Dolls” still feels surprisingly fleet and light; it’s not often that a 140-minute show flies by as briskly as this does. The Civic’s performance doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, but it doesn’t really need to.
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