Since the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre began producing Broadway musicals seven years ago, there has been a steady but quiet clamor to get back to the classics. The theater gestured in that direction with last season’s Man of La Mancha, but this season, it steps back to Broadway’s Golden Age with its production of Guys and Dolls.
There’s a double nostalgia at work here. The musical itself debuted in 1950, but it’s life blood goes back to the 1930s and the stories of Damon Runyon, beloved tales written in a charming patois that chronicle the lives of larger-than-life New Yorkers.
The Rep’s revival of Guys and Dolls, directed by artistic director Mark Clements, is a musical feast, offering terrific versions of Frank Loesser’s songs. Clements has assembled a cast of first-rate singers, dancers and comedians, and this being an old-school musical, there are a lot of them. The opening number is a crowded pantomime of tourists, pickpockets, guys and gals on the make, and, of course, gangsters and “missionaries,” who grow into the backbone of the story.
The gambling entrepreneur Nathan Detroit (Richard R. Henry) is desperate for a location for his regular crap game, and needs a thousand bucks to pay off the proprietor of the Biltmore Garage. In a pinch, he tries to win the cash from the high roller Sky Masterson (Nicholas Rodriguez), betting him that he can’t persuade the Salvation Army-esque mission worker, Sarah Brown (Emma Rose Brooks), to fly to Cuba with him. With a Shakespearean penchant for double weddings, script writers Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows give Nathan some love problems of his own—it seems his fiancée of fourteen years, Miss Adelaide (Kelly Faulkner) is rather impatient to get married.
This quartet is surrounded, of course, by a bevy of great comic characters: Michael J. Farina as Nathan’s sidekick, Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Adrian Aguilar as his cohort Benny Southstreet, Andrew Varela as the visiting Chicago high-roller, Big Jule, and many others.
Playing these “guys and dolls” require powerful vocal pipes and sure-footed dance moves, and this cast doesn’t disappoint. It also requires a knack for the particular rhythms and attitude of the Runyonesque characters. Here, the standouts are Faulkner and Farina. Faulkner has a great time with Miss Adelaide’s gangster-moll stereotypes, while injecting them with both wit and humanity. Farina gives Nicely-Nicely an easy-going charm that fits snuggly with the stylized language of the play.
The charm is contagious, of course. You’ll feel it radiating from the stage, even in the splashiest production numbers. And you’ll understand why Guys and Dolls is a musical for the ages.
Go See It: Milwaukee Repertory Theatre (108 E. Wells St.); Guys and Dolls. Sept. 19-Oct. 29, 2017.