‘Guys and Dolls’ charm at Berkeley Playhouse

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Since opening in 1951, Frank Loesser’s “Guys and Dolls,” based on the stories of Damon Runyon, has been hailed as one of the greatest musicals of all time. Director Jon Tracy revives the fun romantic comedy for the Berkeley Playhouse, offering impressive musical numbers, lively dancing and plenty of laughs.

The beautiful Julia Morgan theater — with its natural redwood paneling, exposed wooden beams and rustic light fixtures — provides an intimate setting for the classic musical, made more so by the use of a raked stage. Nina Ball’s creative set design was inspired, making the most of the space by using a combination of simple props and innovative lighting techniques on a set of bare walls, complemented by a silhouette suggesting a city skyline.

The musical numbers were fantastic from the moment the show began. Musical director Robert Michael Moreno led a small but talented cast, accompanied by a wonderful band, who romped through the familiar score, including old favorites like “Luck Be a Lady.” Choreographer Chris Black composed sharp dance numbers full of energy and flamboyance, particularly the subtle moves of the background cast members. The story was unquestionably dated — no one would tolerate women being called “dolls” these days — yet the production was warmly nostalgic, embracing the fun of the story and the charm of Loesser’s original musical numbers.

The story begins with Nathan Detroit (Michael Scott Wells), a member of New York’s rather tame criminal underworld and manager of “the Oldest Established Permanent Floating Crap Game in New York.” Detroit needs $1,000 to secure a location for the week’s game, so he places a bet with big-time gambler Sky Masterson that Masterson can’t take neighborhood missionary Sara Brown to Havana. However, Masterson ends up falling for Brown, and the rest of the story follows the obstacles they tackle on their way to happily ever after.

The central love interests were regrettably underwhelming, letting down the rest of the colorful, distinctive cast. Carmichael J. Blankenship’s Masterson was cheesy rather than charming, and his operatic soprano seemed forced and unnatural. Angel Burgess’s Brown was too stiff to convince an audience that she could ever fall hopelessly in love. This was made especially clear in the almost distressing scene of Brown dancing drunkenly in Havana, a scene in which she seemed to be more belligerent than fun and free. The leads failed to bring any passion to the familiar romance plot, and most of their interaction lacked chemistry, resulting in a rather lifeless love story.

However, the secondary romance in the show was much more vibrant and exciting to watch. The formidable Sarah Mitchell plays Miss Adelaide, Detroit’s long-suffering fiancee of 14 years and leading Hot Box showgirl. Mitchell’s stern personality and scene-stealing performances of “Adelaide’s Lament” and the wonderfully catchy “A Bushel and a Peck” are certainly the most captivating of all. Mitchell’s exceptional performance alone is enough to recommend the show. Detroit and his exuberant sidekicks, Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Joshua Castro) and Benny Southstreet (Gregory Sottolano), also gave terrific performances throughout. Castro’s hilarious rendition of “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” was a show-stopping highlight.

The costumes were a particularly weak point, and it would have greatly added to the show if they had been more authentic and reflected the era of the show. Apart from the mixed acting and the poor quality of the costumes, the show is highly enjoyable overall and definitely worth watching.

Berkeley Playhouse offers special Pay What You Can nights every so often, for which audience members pay what they can afford (at least $5) for tickets, a program implemented to make theater accessible to everyone.

“Guys and Dolls” runs through April 28 at the Julia Morgan Theater at 2640 College Ave. in Berkeley. www.berkeleyplayhouse.org. Showtimes are Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m.

Contact Meadhbh McGrath at [email protected].