Damon Runyon’s colorful New York denizens are lighting up the stage at Rolling Hills Estates’ Norris Theatre in their 2011-2012 season opener, a highly entertaining production of Frank Loesser’s Guys And Dolls.

Based on a story and characters created by Runyon and adapted for the musical stage by songwriter Loesser and book writers Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling, Guys And Dolls brings to musical life Runyon’s Fellas And Gals of post WWII Times Square, and a more picturesque cast of characters you won’t find this side of Dogpatch.

There’s high-rolling gambler Sky Masterson (Chris Warren Gilbert), who wagers he can convince virginal Save-A-Soul Mission “Doll” Sarah Brown (Beth Obregon) to join him on an overnighter to Havana . There’s feckless but lovable gambler Nathan Detroit (Jeff Asch), ever on the lookout for a new venue for the “oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York.” Meanwhile, Nathan’s fourteen-year-long engagement to Miss Adelaide (Rebecca Morris), headline dancer at the Hot Box Nightclub, has been going on for so long that it has caused poor Adelaide a psychosomatic cold, quite possibly one of the longest on record. Among the small-time gamblers who populate “Runyonland” are Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Brandon Stanford), Benny Southstreet (Jason Sluyter), and Rusty Charlie (Sam Atkin) whose three-part “Fugue For Tinhorns” not only expresses their devotion to sniffing out today’s winning horse, but starts Guys And Dolls out with a three-part harmony bang. Providing a giant-sized whiff of comic menace is mountainous Chicago kingpin Big Jule (Billy Tyler), with a massive frame and an equally massive desire to win, which he makes sure to do by using dice that “ain’t got no spots.” (He remembers where the dots were).

Will Sky be able to persuade Sarah to fly with him to Cuba? Will Nathan take advantage of the couple’s absence to hold tonight’s crap game inside the Save-A-Soul mission? Will Miss Adelaide convince Nathan to marry her and in so doing, finally get over her cold? Will Sarah find out Sky’s real name?

There’s hardly a musical theater aficionado who doesn’t know the answers to these questions, and even those who’ve never seen Guys And Dolls can probably win their own bet by correctly guessing the answers. The pleasures in Guys And Dolls are not plot-related, but in the memorable characters which Runyon created and which performers have relished bringing to life for the past sixty-two years, as well as in the show’s many song standards and production numbers, which won Michael Kidd a 1950 Best Choreography Tony and provide choreographer Ann Myers and her dance ensemble with numerous lively production numbers to execute with high energy and enthusiasm.

Guys And Dolls’ most infectious Frank Loesser songs are the upbeat, dancy ones like “The Oldest Established,” “Guys And Dolls,” “Havana” (with its sexy Latin steps), “Luck Be A Lady,” and “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ The Boat,” which Myers’ committed band of movers and dancers give their all. Then there are the sparkling specialty numbers performed by Miss Adelaide and the Hot Box Girls—”Bushel And A Peck” and “Take Back Your Mink,” the latter featuring a hilarious G-rated society doll striptease. “Adelaide’s Lament” has made Adelaide one of musical theater’s most colorful supporting characters, no more so than when joining forces with Nathan Detroit for the show-stopping “Sue Me.”

Loesser’s ballads include many now standard ditties, including “I’ll Know,” “My Time Of Day,” “I’ve Never Been In Love Before,” and “More I Cannot Wish You,” in addition to the more upbeat “If I Were A Bell” and “Marry The Man Today.”

Director James W. Gruessing, Jr. gets his large cast performing at the peak of their talents. Gilbert’s leading man looks and stature and a fine musical theater voice make him a particularly apt choice for Sky, a role he first played as a high schooler only blocks from the Norris. Obregon creates a charmingly prim-and-proper Sarah, her rich soprano making the most of the Mission Doll’s many ballads. The delightfully ditzy Morris plays against type to hilarious effect as Adelaide, towering over pixyish Scenie-winner Asch, one of the best Nathan Detroits ever. (Think Jackie Gleason and Nathan Lane on helium.)

In supporting roles, a goofy, geeky Stanford reinvents Nicely-Nicely in scene-stealing fashion, ably aided and abetted by the terrific duo of Sluyter and Atkin, the latter a dance standout as are Danny Marin (Scranton Slim) and Drew Reese (The Greek). Hot Box Girls Elizabeth Gavalda (Trixie), Adrianne Hampton (Mimi), dance captain Evie Hutton (Jean), and Katy Tabb (Vivian) are sexy, saucy delights. John Briganti (Arvide Abernathy) sings a lovely “More I Cannot Wish You,” Dave Diestel scores points as Lt. Brannigan, and Tyler’s garners big laughs as Big Jule.

Completing the cast with infectious enthusiasm are Drew Boudreau (Calvin/Angie The Ox), Fernando Christopher (Society Max), Brad Fitzgerald (Brandy Bottle Bates), Kevin Paul (Harry The Horse), Joan Perkins (General Cartwright), Angela Roque (Agatha), and Sheri Vasquez (Martha).

Musical director Daniel Thomas leads the excellent thirteen-piece pit orchestra. Costumes, provided by The Theatre Company, Upland and coordinated by Christina Bayer, are colorful cartoonlike treats, as are the production’s unbilled sets, lit to Technicolor brilliance by Christina Munich. Anthony Gagliardi’s wigs give the women just the right late ‘40s dos. Sound designer extraordinaire Julie Ferrin of Sound Advice doubles as board operator. Melanie Caveness is property designer. Kimberly K. Mitchell is stage manager, Gruessing producer, Greg Forbess technical director, Stacy Hennon assistant technical director.

Sixty-two years after its debut on The Great White Way, Guys And Dolls has gone from theatrical classic to Broadway legend. For the next three weeks, South Bay audiences of any age can find out why.

Norris Center For the Performing Arts , 27570 Crossfield Drive, Rolling Hills Estates.

–Steven Stanley
September 23, 2011
Photos: Ed Krieger

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