(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal.)
It’s easy to understand how “Guys and Dolls” has become a musical theater classic, and why TexARTS’ Professional Series has mounted a new production, running through Aug. 23. Sixty-five years after its Tony Award-winning Broadway premiere, the show remains a crowd favorite, thanks to laugh-out-loud jokes that still land and hummable, catchy tunes, many of which have become classics in their own right.
The book, by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, focuses on the lives of several likable gamblers and the “dolls” they bet their hearts on, while Frank Loesser’s music and lyrics still exude their original charm. Neither story nor lyrics, however, create a particularly timely nor edgy piece of theater.
A successful production of “Guys and Dolls,” then, relies almost entirely upon its cast. Happily, TexARTS’ production has several strong performances that make for a warm, witty and whimsical night of theater.
TexARTS is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to develop an arts community through education and performance. Their small theater is a bit tiny to contain such a big show (the production skips the opening “Runyonland” tableau, for example), but it does create a cozy atmosphere between audience and performer.
The highlight among these performances is J. Quinton Johnson as the smart, sophisticated gambler Sky Masterson. Most interpretations of Masterson follow the closed-off and aloof Marlon Brando from the film version of “Guys and Dolls.” Johnson, however, is youthful, open, energetic and oozing charisma, creating a whole new vision of the character. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he and Taylor Colleen Smit, as love interest Sarah Brown, share an electricity that fairly sparks off the stage.
Unfortunately, the other lead couple of the show – Amy Nichols’ Miss Adelaide and Jose Villarreal’s Nathan Detroit – don’t quite have the same chemistry. Though Villarreal is particularly slimy (in a hilariously charming way), and Nichols steals all the show’s biggest laughs, they don’t mesh quite as well as their co-stars do.
Perhaps the strongest couple in the production is Paul Sanchez and Timothy Ellis Riley as Detroit’s wheedling sidekicks Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Benny Southstreet. Gifted performers in their own right, when paired up the two become a modern-day Jackie Gleason and Art Carney, and one can only hope we’ll see them work together again in the future.
Though not the most polished production you’ll ever see, TexARTS’ “Guys and Dolls” is a fun romp, buoyed by a few standout performances, that makes for a nice evening out.
‘Guys and Dolls’ continues through Aug. 23 at Kam and James Morris Theatre. tex-arts.org