Opening Nights: Guys and Dolls

Yet again, a 5th Avenue production is a safe bet.

Is Guys and Dolls' Miss Adelaide the best female comic role in American musical-theater history? Or does Billie Wildrick just make it seem that way? In the 5th Avenue's production of Frank Loesser's 1950 musical, she plays, sublimely, a New York City showgirl trying to get her man to the altar. Beyond that old fish-with-a-bicycle trope, beyond her boop-boop-be-doop surface, Wildrick seems to read her as the only adult onstage—a frustrated realist, the only major character who hasn't constructed a fantasy to keep the world at bay. (She's constructed one to keep her mother at bay, but that's another story.) She hungers less for the whole white-picket-fence thing than for her fiance, craps huckster Nathan Detroit, the oldest established perpetual floating adolescent in New York, finally to grow up and commit to something/anything. The other female lead, Sarah Brown, a proselytizing Salvation Army sergeant, bears her starched piety like a shield—until gambling playboy Sky Masterson, on a bet, persuades her to spend an evening in Havana with him. Under the influence of Bacardi and a mambo or two, she melts. As Katherine Strohmaier plays her, it's an amazing transformation to behold: The starch washes out to be replaced by the spirit of Judy Garland (no less) in her big number, "If I Were a Bell," the show's ecstatic high point. As Nathan, Daniel C. Levine adds a dash of Jack Gilford to a solid foundation of Phil Silvers. Brandon O'Neill plays Sky in the grand, stage-owning tradition of charismatic rogues going all the way back to the Adam of American musical-comedy characters, Gaylord Ravenal in 1927's Show Boat. Speaking of gambling, the 5th Avenue's homegrown productions have become just about the safest theater bet in town. It's the only local performing-arts organization I can think of that succeeds equally on two separate mission-statement tracks: wet-nursing new Broadway-bound work (e.g., Hairspray, Catch Me if You Can, and the upcoming Aladdin) and lovingly reviving classics—as diverse, in recent seasons, as On the Town and Sunday in the Park With George. On each of these, as on Guys and Dolls, the 5th lavished large casts of the best local talent on offer; imaginative stagings, traditionalist in the best way; eye-candy sets, costumes, and production numbers (without letting them overwhelm those casts); and above all, a heartfelt and giddily joyous insight into what made these shows fizz in the first place and how to make them do so again.

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