Story: What’s a small-time gambler circa post-World War II to do? Plucky Nathan Detroit may run “the oldest established floating crap game in New York,” but NYPD Lt. Brannigan is determined to jail him and his cronies, come hell or high stakes.
Nathan needs $1,000 to use an acquaintance’s garage in his next venture, but has no cash. As the solution, he wagers that sum against slick Sky Masterson, who’s been known to bet on which sugar cube a fly will land on.
So Nathan bets Sky the latter won’t be able to convince a woman of the former’s choosing to dine with him. The lady in question turns out to be Sgt. Sarah Brown of the Save-a-Soul Mission, which is struggling to find sinners to visit its Manhattan site. Sky takes the bet, then goes about wooing the sergeant.
Sky tells Sarah he’ll guarantee 12 sinners to visit the mission when her boss comes calling the next night. He even talks Sarah into dining with him at his favorite place: a ritzy nightclub in Havana, where the teetotaling Sarah learns how much she likes “Cuban milkshakes” – which happen to be laced with rum.
As for Nathan, his fiancée of 14 years, a singer named Miss Adelaide, has reached her limit awaiting a wedding proposal. Adelaide informs him she’s been writing letters to her mother in Rhode Island for 12 years, stating that the two of them now have five children – with a sixth on the way. The time has come for Nathan to marry the woman he professes to love.
When a Chicago gangster named Big Jule arrives in town itching for a crap game, he resorts to cheating to win back all his money – and then some – from Nathan. Arriving late to the party, Sky bets all the gamblers that if they win, he owes each of them $1,000 – but if he beats them, they owe him a night at the mission.
Who will win those bets? And can Sky convince the skeptical Sarah that he isn’t an inveterate gambler with loose morals?
Highlights: Stray Dog Theatre brings down the curtain on its 2018-19 season with a faithful, rollicking rendition of what some pundits have termed the perfect musical comedy.
Other Info: Guys and Dolls, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1951. Based on characters created by 20th-century newspaperman and short story writer Damon Runyon, Guys and Dolls also earned the 1951 Pulitzer Prize for Drama before Burrows was vilified by the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee, leading to the prize being rescinded.
Director Gary F. Bell’s rendition at Tower Grove Abbey fully uses the building’s aisles to accommodate his large, energetic cast as they stroll to the well-appointed scenic design conceived by Josh Smith. It features the Hot Box nightclub (where Adelaide performs) at stage right, the Save-a-Soul Mission at stage left and a newsstand at center back.
In one particularly vibrant moment, Mike Wells as Nicely-Nicely Johnson leads his fellow gamblers and the members of the mission in the gospel-infused number “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” again with infectious, stylized dancing.
Bell coaxes winning performances from his agreeable cast, led by the limber Kevin O’Brien as Nathan. O’Brien’s especially humorous in his give-and-take with Sara Rae Womack; Womack excels as the long-suffering Adelaide, who’s hoodwinked her unseen mother about a husband and five grandchildren – without grandmum suspecting anything amiss in a dozen years.
Angela Bubash and Jayde Mitchell pair handsomely as Sarah and Sky, with the latter leading the way on the show’s stirring anthem, “Luck Be a Lady,” while the former displays a fine voice on the ballad “If I Were a Bell.”
Wells makes a humorous Nicely-Nicely, while Cory Frank serves ably as small-time hustler Benny Southstreet and Stephen Henley as ne’er-do-well Harry the Horse. Zachary Stefaniak amusingly portrays the intimidating Big Jule, while Howard S. Bell showcases his own impressive voice as Sarah’s grandfather.
The jokes are as funny as ever, and the music still can get one swaying and snapping to its infectious sounds. Guys and Dolls makes one swell evening of entertainment.
Company: Stray Dog Theatre
Venue: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave., St. Louis
Dates: Aug. 16 to 18 and 21 to 24
Tickets: $25 to $30; contact 314-865-1995 or straydogtheatre.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1 to 5