'Guys and Dolls' at SF Playhouse

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday December 5, 2023
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A repentant Nicely-Nicely (Kay Loren, center) describes a heavenly journey in San Francisco Playhouse's 'Guys and Dolls.' (photo: Jessica Palopoli)
A repentant Nicely-Nicely (Kay Loren, center) describes a heavenly journey in San Francisco Playhouse's 'Guys and Dolls.' (photo: Jessica Palopoli)

When a local company chooses to revive a time-honored musical theater crowd-pleaser, it's usually for one of two reasons: to goose the box office revenue by trading on nostalgic familiarity, or to encourage audiences to consider the piece from a fresh angle.

San Francisco Playhouse's amiably diverting production of "Guys and Dolls" may well succeed at bringing a warm, fuzzy feeling to fans of the Frank Loesser (music and lyrics)/Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows (book) chestnut. But attendees looking for something new will get just a glimmer of how the show might someday be reinvented as a fully power-shifted "Dolls and Guys."

The performances of Abigail Esfira Campbell as Salvation Army Lieutenant Sarah Brown and Melissa WolfKlain as showgirl/mob moll Adelaide make the strongest arguments for seeing this version.

When Campbell sings "If I Were A Bell," in her breathtaking pellucid soprano, you'll want to assure her that she already is. And WolfKlain takes a character who often rings of dingbat (complete with adenoidal Edith Bunker accent) and gives her oomph and agency beyond what's suggested in the somewhat dated script. She's more than a match for Nathan Detroit (Joel Roster) here, rather than the comic novelty many productions make of her.

In addition to spotlighting the strengths of his two female leads, director Bill English further leans into the dollification of Damon Runyon's Aqua Velva pugnacity (the writer's short stories inspired the musical) with the non-traditional casting of Kay Loren as gambler Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Jessica Coker as the overbearing backstreet boss, Big Jule.

Coker makes the most of this opportunity, with a hardnosed, hair-trigger characterization that makes the ambiguously named Jule believable as dick, dyke or anywhere in between.

Nathan (Joel Roster) and Adelaide (Melissa WolfKlain) in San Francisco Playhouse's 'Guys and Dolls.'
(photo: Jessica Palopoli)  

A tad too nicely done
While altogether serviceable, the male cast members generally turn in less compelling performances. Roster and the ensemble don't evoke real 1940s grit so much as the sanitized back alleys of a "Top Cat" cartoon.

As Sky Masterson, who falls hard for good Samaritan Sarah, David Toshiro Crane sings and dances with a handsome elegance that's lovely to watch; but it doesn't convince you this guy's ever set foot on the wrong side of the tracks.

And keep your eye on company member Chachi Delgado, whose ever-shifting facial expressions reveal a deep engagement with the script. He's a swell hoofer, too.

In strengthening the musical's main female characters while smoothing the edges off the guys, English doesn't fully commit to a distinctive new point of view on the show. Our interest in something fresh is piqued, but not fully paid off.

What's left to truly savor are Loesser's indelibly jaunty songs: "Luck Be A Lady," "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat," "Take Back Your Mink," and the title tune, all delivered with enough spunk and joy to send you home smiling, even handicapped by the lack of a full-sized orchestra that can truly do justice to the score.

As is San Francisco Playhouse tradition, the scenic (Heather Kenyon) and costume design (Kathleen Qiu) are aces. Sometimes superfluous, the company's signature turntable stage is put to excellent use here. And Kenyon's transition from Manhattan streets to an underground sewer scene is a treat.

For all its retro amusement, it's hard to see "Guys and Dolls" in 2023 and not think a bit about the degree to which class division in urban America has intensified since the Runyon era.

Broadway audiences — and theater-makers - in 1950 might have considered themselves a cut above the show's sidewalk ne'er-do-wells and small-time criminals, but not so far above that they couldn't recognize these characters' humanity and open-heartedly drop some change in a donation kettle.

That's an attitude worth considering today, rather than walking out of the theater braced to run a gauntlet along the edge of an abyss.

'Guys and Dolls,' through Jan. 13. $55-$125. 450 Post St. 415-677-9596. www.sfplayhouse.org

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