PICK! ASR Theater ~SF Playhouse Bends Genders in Superb “Guys and Dolls”

By Woody Weingarten

It’s virtually impossible to rate the new San Francisco Playhouse production of Guys and Dolls as anything but almost perfect, not quite as good as God’s long-running comic-tragedy, Mankind.

Sanitized, slang-spouting characters lifted from two 1920s and ‘30s Damon Runyon short stories remain extremely likeable 73 years after the Tony Award-winning musical comedy debuted on Broadway — New Yawk gamblers and gangsters mostly, but also a couple of inept Chicago crooks/crapshooters. And then, of course, there’s Sarah Brown, the Save-A-Soul missionary heroine who proves that love can conquer all.

… it’s the cast of the superb show …

Frank Loesser’s music (and lyrics) for this rendition — accompanied by a sprightly, hidden-onstage band under the direction of Dave Dobrusky — reaches the epitome of peppy, ideal for the holiday season.

Sky Masterson (David Toshiro Crane, center) and gamblers roll the dice.

Choreography by Nicole Helfer, even if somewhat derivative, hits an exciting high (with each dancer sublimely connected to all the others). Costumes designed by Kathleen Qiu appear both authentic to the era and playful (especially numbers in the Hot Box burlesque hall where Adelaide comically struts her stuff), augmented by sundry wigs concocted by Laundra Tyme—some straightforward, some whimsical.

Adelaide (Melissa WolfKlain, center) performs with the Hot Box Girls (from left, Malia Abayon, Alison Ewing, Jill Slyter, and Brigitte Losey) in “Guys and Dolls.”

The frequently revolving sets by scenic designer Heater Kenyon come across as exceptionally imaginative, a proverbial wonder to behold. Yet it’s the cast of the superb show — which is labeled a fable, but which adroitly delves into how one segment of society has trouble understanding another — that shines brightest.

Audience faces light right up, for example, each time Melissa WolfKlain, who delightfully and deliberately squeaks as Adelaide steps onto the stage, a stripper-star who’s been engaged for well over a decade to Nathan Detroit a guy whose livelihood stems from running a long-haul floating crap game. She’s particularly marvelous rendering “Adelaide’s Lament” (“In other words, just from worrying if the wedding is on or off, A person can develop a cough”), “Take Back Your Mink,” and “Marry the Man Today” (a duet with Abigail Esfira Campbell, as puritanical but seducible Sgt. Sarah Brown).

Campbell sings with a purity that can make most other vocalists jealous. She’s top-drawer on “I’ll Know” and “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” with her acting chops becoming an ideal accompaniment to her vocals (her slinky drunk scene in Cuba is most noteworthy). Both melodies are performed, by the way, in duet with David Toshiro Crane as charismatic, cocky, sexy gambler Sky Masterson.

Crane gives the Masterson character a sturdiness that makes you believe he can change from a high-roller to a guy high on life and love. His voice, too, soothes while delivering whatever emotion is required.

Joel Roster acts appropriately oblivious to his doll as Nathan Detroit, the guy who can’t bring himself to commit to her but who’s committed to finding a gambling site somewhere.

Kay Loren, who uses the pronouns they/them, rounds out the frontline performers as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, a part usually filled by a man. Director Bill English and casting director Kieran Beccia, in fact, carefully gender-bent other actor-singers (such as having Kay Loren and Jessica Coker play Nicely-Nickely Johnson and Big Jule, respectively). They ethnic-bent, too, with Asian Alex Hsu assuming the slick role of Irish cop Lt. Brannigan.

But it takes only a minute or two for a theatergoer to fully suspended his or her disbelief and enjoy the binary and racial tampering.

Underscoring what unison truly means — musically and with a racial mix — is the praiseworthy chorus.

Sgt. Sarah Brown (Abigail Esfira Campbell, center) tries to enlist sinners for the Save-A-Soul Mission.

The major plot device is about finding a location for that dice game. The subplot feels terribly familiar: Guy meets and courts girl (because he bets the then huge sum of $1,000 that he can); girl is attracted to and then turned off by guy; guy gets girl.

Other don’t-miss tunes include the title tune, “Luck Be a Lady,” and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” — and two exhilarating all-dance numbers, “Havana” and “The Crapshooter’s Dance.”

The only thing absent from this two hour-plus version is the thick, unpolished Lower East Side of New Yawk accents — along with the “deses” and “doses” — that instantly tell visitors from Boise, Idaho, that they’re in the Big Apple.

Guys and Dolls has been considered by many as the ultimate musical comedy. The SF Playhouse production shouldn’t disavow that opinion.

Dancers Chachi Delgado and Malia Abayon move fast but sensually in a Havana nightclub.

A Footnote: I’ve told the tale of my wife’s obsession with the show for about 20 years — ever since the last time we saw it.

Before watching a touring company at another San Francisco theater, she’d played the entire score for me on our piano at home. She’d followed by humming most of its tunes during our trip into the city from San Anselmo. And, as I did, she loved the show itself.

But then she inserted a CD of the score on the way back from that performance. I knew she’d adored the show penned by famed theatrical storyline fixer Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling ever since as a pre-teen she’d seen the original with Robert Alda, Alan’s dad, playing Sky Masterson — that final over-the-top fangirl action was much too much for me to handle.

Ergo, I had some trepidation about leading her to the SF Playhouse, even as a MysteryDate, something we’ve been doing for all 36 years we’ve been wed. A MysteryDate, FYI, is an almost-certain way to help keep the sizzle in a relationship — an activity you arrange without your partner knowing where she or he is going until you get there. Or vice versa — that is, one arranged with you in the dark.

After five years of working on it, not incidentally, I’ve just finished writing a book about MysteryDates, one that can double as a travel guidebook while clobbering the myth that long-term relationships are inevitably doomed to become unexciting, monotonous, or drab. The book should be available in January. Check out https://woodyweingarten.com to be sure.


ASR Senior Contributor Woody Weingarten has decades of experience writing arts and entertainment reviews and features. A member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, he is the author of three books, The Roving I; Grampy and His Fairyzona Playmates; and Rollercoaster: How a Man Can Survive His Partner’s Breast Cancer. Contact: voodee@sbcglobal.net or https://woodyweingarten.com or http://www.vitalitypress.com/

ProductionGuys and Dolls
Book byAbe Burrows and Jo Swerling
Directed byBill English
Musical Direction byDave Dubrusky
Choreography byNicole Helfer
Music/Lyrics byFrank Loesser
Producing CompanySan Francisco Playhouse
Production DatesThru Jan 13th, 2024
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$15 - $125
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!