Call it dumb, call it clever; ah, but you can give odds forever that any staging of “Guys and Dolls” is going to bring more pleasure than pain, thanks to the peerless professionalism of its creators and unfailing good nature. Last weekend, Kevin Stites and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra did right by the evergreen Frank Loesser score for a pleasant night out, in the face of grievous miscasting and a total absence of drama.
Damon Runyon’s “musical fable of Broadway” requires consistent, colorful style, and helmer Richard Jay-Alexander’s team came through with sharply tailored, distinctive costumes from Thomas Marquez (facilitating character identification on the enormous stage) and Tom Ruzika’s evocative lighting in the Havana nitery numbers.
Choreographer Donna McKechnie incorporated some Jerry Robbins panache in an abbreviated “Crapshooter’s Ballet,” and amplification and diction were exemplary throughout.
Trouble was, Scott Bakula’s too-relaxed Nathan Detroit evidenced no particular urgency in setting up his world-famous crap game, and Jessica Biel’s uncomfortable Sarah Brown lacked the evangelical fire to fill her Times Square Mission with sinners. With nothing at stake in either plot, this “Guys and Dolls” outing just meandered from showstopper to showstopper as we started wishing the intervening scenes had been trimmed further or cut altogether.
Bakula’s cocky assurance would actually have been well suited to Sky Masterson, to whom Brian Stokes Mitchell brought his patented glowering intensity even though the role has no use for that quality.
He turned a raffish rogue into a sinister dude employing an imperious baritone to demand rather than plead that “Luck Be a Lady.” What a Billy Flynn in “Chicago” Mitchell would make, but his Sky was reminiscent of Patti LuPone’s stab at “Carousel’s” Julie Jordan in her recent Ahmanson concert: interesting take on the songs, but player and part should never be brought together again.
Happily, Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling’s libretto kept ushering in Ellen Greene to confirm the lifelong suspicion she was born to play Miss Adelaide. Manifestly a dame who’s been around the block a few times — like the rest of McKechnie’s nifty line of game Hot Box Girls — Greene’s long-suffering chorine possessed a delightfully childlike quality while making every emotional and comic moment land.
Comically successful, too, were the well-chosen character types operating independently of the leads. In the Bowl, musical comedy always works better than musical drama anyway, and with seasoned pros like Herschel Sparber (Big Jule) and Bill Lewis (Harry the Horse) on hand, laughs were won in otherwise mirthless book scenes.
Meanwhile, Ken Page (Nicely-Nicely) and Jason Graae (Benny) could have done two encores of the title tune and still left us wanting more.
They know the savviest vaudevillians’ secret: how to play larger than life while remaining utterly lifelike.