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Review: Bets, Broads and Booze

‘Guys and Dolls’ launches Lamb's Players' 2012 season in a fine production that overcomes some stumbles in character development.

The nitty-gritty:  comprises 27 actors and musicians, making it one of Lamb’s Players' biggest-ever pieces. As Lamb’s launches its 2012 season, there’s a decided strength in those numbers, to say nothing of the presentation. Very good show.

Our thoughts: Some of writer Damon Runyon’s characters say they’ve never been in love, but that’s OK—Runyon was romantic enough for all of ’em put together.

He put the Prohibition era on a pedestal, crafting characters and short stories that celebrated Broadway’s seedier side. Hustlers, gamers and gangsters were his stock in trade, marked by street names like Harry the Horse and Rusty Charlie, people with the curious habit of talking out of the corners of their mouths.

Their slang was as colorful as their shirts and ties, and as often as not, they’d wear their hearts on the sleeves of their pinstripe suits.

Guys and Dolls is theater’s signature nod to Runyon’s gangland fascination. Based on several of his short stories, the Frank Loesser-Abe Burrows musical has been revived on Broadway five times since its 1950 premiere and gave several pop songs, like “Luck Be a Lady” and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” lives of their own.

It thrives on its swagger and sass, of which the current production has plenty—and while the story loses something in its approach, the company’s technical traditions are in full swing in this highly entertaining entry.

You’ve probably heard of Nathan Detroit, Sarah Brown and Sky Masterson at least in passing, and chances are you’re familiar with their story. Nathan runs an infamous floating crap game that’s come to Broadway, with Adelaide, his fiancée of 14 years, in tow.

Straitlaced Sarah sits at the other end of the spectrum, leading a Salvation Army-style band in her crusade to rid Times Square of evil. Sky will eventually drop in on both worlds; by the end, he’s pining for Sarah’s love and goodness of heart. Love is lost and found in this backdrop of bets, broads and booze, and eventually, all’s right with the world.

Runyon’s language is abrupt and fun, enlivened with the occasional streetism when it’s least expected: $5,000 is a bundle of lettuce; Sky puts “the knock on dolls” and Benny Southstreet pleads the Fifth Commandment.

Funny barbs mark the dialogue as well. When Nathan says he’s been running his crap game “since I was a juvenile delinquent,” fiancée Adelaide pipes up with, “Speaking of chronic conditions, happy anniversary.”

Still, something’s missing. As clever as they are, many major characters never seem to play off the people opposite them, only the situations that involve those people. Sky (Brent Schindele) falls in love with Sarah (Kelsey Venter) more for her religiosity and  her persistence than for who she really is underneath; Nathan (Spencer Rowe) puts off marriage to Adelaide (Eileen Bowman) out of fear of the institution rather than any disdain for her. The characters often shortcut their way to the action, moving the story along well before they establish their personal relationships.

But director Kerry Meads takes other matters in hand. Her underworld culture is perfectly readable by itself. Her players adopt the gangland vogue without sacrificing the nuances that make their characters unique.

Colleen Kollar Smith’s choreography and Nathan Peirson’s lights are as spirited as you’ll find, and Venter’s singing voice conveys the sweetness that is Sarah. Music director Jon Lorenz has the five-piece orchestra sounding like eight, and Mike Buckley’s shrewd set places the musicians into the playing space.

The details: This review is based on the opening-night performance of Feb. 10. The production runs through March 25 at the Paul and Ione Harter Stage, 1142 Orange Ave., $26-$64, lambsplayers.org

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