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'Guys and Dolls' at the Wallis: Pared down but still full of punch

'Guys and Dolls' at the Wallis: Pared down but still full of punch
Sky Masterson (Jeremy Peter Johnson) tries to persuade missionary Sarah Brown (Kate Hurster) to accompany him to Havana as part of a bet in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of "Guys and Dolls" at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Arts in Beverly Hills. (Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

The stripper whose wildest dream is of marriage. The high-stakes gambler who falls for a missionary. Both live on the sweet, homely Broadway of Damon Runyon, whose short stories about Depression-era gamblers and others on the seedy side of the street of dreams inspired the great American musical "Guys and Dolls: A Musical Fable of Broadway."

In the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's trim and toothsome new production, now playing at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, director Mary Zimmerman and her zestful cast have a great deal of fun with this idealized underworld and its broadly drawn characters, with their thick New York accents (a "person" is a "poy-son") and tendency to malapropism, without ever losing touch with the humble yearnings beneath their stylized bluster.

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"I kinda like it when you forget to get me a present," Miss Adelaide tells her commitment-phobic fiance, the small-time grifter Nathan Detroit, on their 14th anniversary. "It almost makes me feel like we're married."

Adelaide (Robin Goodrin Nordli), who headlines at the Hot Box Club in gimmicky strip numbers ("A Bushel and a Peck" and "Take Back Your Mink"), would give it all up in a heartbeat to be a suburban housewife with five children. She imagines Nathan (Rodney Gardiner) as an assistant manager at the A&P. ("I can't even be the manager?" Nathan gripes when he learns of her modest fantasy.)

This longing for marriage, she speculates, is the psychological cause of the chronic cold that makes her so adorably sneezy and adenoidal. In the number "Adelaide's Lament," she sniffles, "Just from waiting around for that plain little band of gold, a person could develop a cold."

Nathan has even less exalted dreams: He just wants to find a place out of sight of the sharp-eyed Lieutenant Brannigan, not to mention the disapproving Adelaide, to host a craps game for some big spenders in from Chicago. To win the cash he needs to reserve the venue,  he makes a foolproof bet with the high-stakes gambler "Sky" Masterson (Jeremy Peter Johnson): Sky must take a "doll" of Nathan's choosing to Havana for dinner. To stack the deck, Nathan picks prim evangelist Sarah Brown (Kate Hurster), a sergeant at the Save-a-Soul Mission.

What Nathan doesn't know is that Sarah has a modest need of her own: She must get sinners to attend her revival meeting so that her boss (K.T. Vogt) won't shut down her branch of the mission. Sky promises Sarah 12 sinners in exchange for that night in Havana, where she drinks too many Bacardi-spiked Cuban milkshakes and loses her inhibitions ("If I Were a Bell").

Sky's efforts to make good on his end of the bargain seem particularly fraught here, and not only because the adorably peevish sinners are so reluctant to be saved; I counted to make sure there were 12 of them onstage.

But if "Guys & Dolls" cries out for herds of cast members and splashy designs, this production proves that it can work just as effectively on a smaller scale. It's tempting to theorize that its humble human heartbeat is the key to the show's popularity since its 1950 Broadway premiere won the Tony Award. At least some of the credit belongs to the beautifully constructed book, by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, and to the zippy, witty, catchy songs by Frank Loesser.

The pared-down quality of this production, every element lovingly curated, shows off the wonderful bones of the writing. The set, by Daniel Ostling, features a back wall of patterned metal, resembling a tin ceiling, with invisible doorways that unexpectedly open on little vignettes, like the windows in an Advent calendar.

The cast members double as the crew during the stylish scene changes, pulling in the props that transform the space from the Hot Box Club to the Save-a-Soul Mission to the dripping sewer (sound effects by Ray Nardelli) where the craps game finally finds a home. In the street scenes, Ostling places dollhouse-sized buildings around the stage to form knee-high cityscapes. I worried a little that the cast would stumble over them, despite their obvious mastery of Daniel Pelzig's playful and meticulous choreography. Mara Blumenfeld's 1930s costumes are lavish and stylized -- the gamblers' loudly patterned suits, the Hot Box girls' teddies -- without going over the top.

Having a streamlined cast means that even performers in supporting roles get room to shine. Daniel T. Parker threatens to steal the show on numerous occasions as the plump, energetic gambler Nicely-Nicely Johnson, who testifies at the revival in the dazzlingly directed number "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat." As the peremptory, dishonest Chicago gangster Big Jule, Richard Elmore manages to be a little scary, even in this candied and nonthreatening underworld.

The four romantic leads, on whom the success of the show largely rests, display strengths and some surprises. The light-footed Gardiner gives Nathan an overblown tough-guy accent but an essential sweetness that keeps him from becoming a cartoon. Nordli’s Miss Adelaide blossoms, as the play unfolds, from a cliched bimbo to a complex and endearing person. Johnson is dashing as the romantic lead and performs the charming song "Luck Be a Lady Tonight" with real flair. As Sarah, Hurster initially seems a bit shrill, with a thin singing voice, until she flies to Havana, when she reveals an endearing gift for physical comedy. 

Guys and dolls may always have trouble reconciling their interests, but both will find plenty to enjoy in this holiday treat.
 
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"Guys and Dolls," Bram Goldsmith Theater, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 20. $39-$110. (310) 746-4000 or www.thewallis.org. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

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