"Guys and Dolls," a Broadway musical set in Times Square, filled with Hell's Kitchen riffraff and their would-be reformers and subtitled "A Musical Fable of Broadway," seemed right at home at the Hollywood Bowl this weekend. But how could it not when it had Brian Stokes Mitchell, the American musical's most charismatic leading man, assaying the role of gambling giant Sky Masterson as well as the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, conducted by musical director Kevin Stites, bringing out every cheeky nuance of Loesser's irreplaceable score?
This concert staging, directed by Richard Jay-Alexander and choreographed by Donna McKechnie, may have had no choice but to skim the dramatic surface. But a comic-book approach isn't antithetical to Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows' enduring book, based on a super-vivid story and characters of Damon Runyon.
In Runyon's world, the men want to play dice while the women want to save them or marry them -- or, better yet, save them by marrying them. And this classic show from 1950 amounts to a big honky-tonk caper, with one side trying to outfox and outface the other. But it's not simply the bad guys versus the good guys. Naturally, these hard-boiled crapshooters are trying to elude the far less colorful cops. But they're also trying to steer clear of the religious zealots, who want to redeem them, and the pretty dames, who won't be content with just a date between game nights.
Jessica Biel, glowing with an untrammeled radiance, played Sarah Brown, a sergeant in the Save-A-Soul Mission. This proselytizing prude becomes the object of a romantic wager between Nathan Detroit (a captivatingly conniving Scott Bakula), desperate to raise the money for a new site for his floating crap game, and Sky, who never accepts a bet he knows he can't win.
And with good reason: One minute Sarah is preaching sobriety, the next she's in Havana lapping up Bacardi and singing to him, "If I were a bell / I'd go ding, dong, ding dong ding." The sexy chemistry between Mitchell and Biel was enhanced by his musical theater confidence and her fresh sense of stage wonder.
As Miss Adelaide, the nightclub chanteuse who has been waiting 14 long years for Nathan to marry her, Ellen Greene was like a cross between Betty Boop and Olive Oyl. The role is too central to be enjoyed on the cartoon level alone (ideal casting: Judy Holliday), but Greene tickled the crowds with her handling of "Adelaide's Lament," in which Loesser's lyrical genius somehow finds ways of juggling "streptococci" and "bromo fizz."
Beau Bridges portrayed Arvide Abernathy, Sarah's wise grandfather and Mission bass drum player, who encourages her to find her true love in "More I Cannot Wish You." But this concert version belonged to the male hucksters and hustlers in snazzy pinstripes.
Along with Bakula (who found the haunting helplessness of "Sue Me"), there was fine work from Ken Page as Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Jason Graae as Benny Southstreet. The two robustly teamed for the title song, "Guys and Dolls," and Page delivered a blusteringly rousing "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat," which never fails to bring an audience to the brink of spiritual ecstasy.
But for a lasting snapshot in how to illuminate both the inside and outside of a number, there was Mitchell slipping into infatuation in "I'll Know," his lovely duet with Biel. And when he blew on his dice-rolling hands in "Luck Be a Lady," the ardency of his chance-conquering stare snared the zeitgeist of this Broadway gem.