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After an obligatory opening flourish, Guys and Dolls gets itself into gear with a giddy little number called “Fugue for Tinhorns,” in which three big-hearted no-accounts talk to, through, and eventually over each other about the generally sordid state of affairs in Damon Runyon’s ’30s New York, where their buddy Nathan Detroit runs a floating craps game and the cops can’t be counted on to stay bought. It’s the sort of bouncy Broadway moment that starts cute and gets cuter with each chorus, and by the time Lawrence Redmond, Wayne W. Pretlow, and Michael W. Howell had swung into the third iteration of Frank Loesser’s infectious little tune on the night of Jan. 1, Charles Randolph-Wright’s neon-lit Arena Stage revival was starting to look like a sizzling success.
So why, half an hour later, hadn’t the show caught fire? Solid cast, sharp design, sure direction—all the ingredients of a roaring hit—seemed to be accounted for, but whether it was post-millennial malaise or something less self-consciously catch-wordy, something crucial seemed to be missing the night after New Year’s Eve.
Maurice Hines jitters his way kinetically, frenetically through the part of Nathan, that style-conscious, commitment-shy scalawag, moving to some kind of seductive, syncopated inner rhythm as he scrambles to keep one step ahead of his matrimonially minded miss and meanwhile raise the cash to rent a safe space for his craps game. Choreographer Ken Roberson has put irresistibly smooth moves in almost every corner of the show—especially in the big ensemble numbers, which snap and pop with an energy that’s sometimes missing elsewhere. And watch the bit players, who get all sorts of interesting business to transact at the edges of scenes: A drunk stumbles his way through “The Oldest Established,” a waiter throws attitude in a Havana cafe, and there’s more than a hint of infighting and boyfriend-poaching among the chorus girls at the Hot Box.
But the leading light of that less-than-ladylike troupe—Miss Adelaide, Nathan’s deliciously dizzy fiancee and a crucial element in any Guys and Dolls production—may be part of the trouble with Arena’s staging. Alexandra Foucard wears Paul Tazewell’s fantabulous fashions with aplomb and sings the justly famous “Adelaide’s Lament” with confidence, but delivers her lines with an oddly grating, laboriously actorish lilt that makes it sound as though Brooklyn-born Adelaide had spent a significant portion of her formative years in the San Fernando Valley.
Brian Sutherland, likewise, makes less of high-rolling risk-taker Sky Masterson—the kind of charming rogue who likes his shirts as shiny as his two-tone shoes—than an idealist would ask for. He’s handsome in an urbane and weathered sort of way, but he sings with an uncertain sense of musical line, and whatever charisma he may be able to conjure on his good nights wasn’t coming across on New Year’s Night. Even in scenes with his real-life wife, Diane Sutherland—who plays Sarah Brown, the mousy Salvation Army missionary whom Sky bets he can successfully woo—that crucial chemistry the two talk about seems oddly lacking.
Even when the principals are at their best, no one appears entirely convinced by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows’ book, which sets up comic situations but doesn’t give the characters any real reason to find their way into or out of them. Even Loesser’s songs feel curiously dated every now and then; what, exactly, is a “licorice tooth,” that indicator of besottedness about which Arvide Abernathy (a genial Terrence Currier) sings so fondly in “More I Cannot Wish You”?
Tazewell’s costumes are an extrovert’s dream—Miss Adelaide’s multipurpose mink and one surprisingly functional little hat are standouts in a sea of aggressively broad-shouldered suits, and her lace doily of a wedding ensemble is just so much extra icing on an already elaborate sartorial cake. But Thomas Lynch’s ho-hum set seems not to realize that its neon flash doesn’t provide enough electricity to power the show all night.
Still, individual shortcomings don’t always keep a show from hitting that spot that makes a musical junkie jump and shout. Likewise, though, even perfect performances—like the one Pretlow caps with his roof-raising “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat”—can’t compensate for that unmistakable click when it’s missing. And on the first night of the new year, it was the lack of that elusive whatever-it-is that seemed to be keeping Arena’s guys and dolls from getting things entirely right between them. CP