Drury Lane’s sparkling revival reminds us why we love ‘Guys and Dolls’

“Guys and Dolls” — 4 stars

Has there ever been a more endearing troupe of hoodlums than the fast-talking, Runyonesque gamblers who populate Frank Loesser’s classic 1950 tuner “Guys and Dolls”?

Sure, they bluster, but none really seem inclined to follow through on their threats, except for one: an out-of-towner from Chicago who tries to impose his will with a tiny, snub nose revolver of which he is easily disarmed.

The guys and their female counterparts — crusaders determined to convert sinners into believers, chorus girls eager to convert bachelors into husbands — are based on the minor league lawbreakers, chorus girls, hustlers and missionaries Damon Runyon depicted in his post-Prohibition, Broadway-set tales. As characters go, they aren’t especially deep. But they don’t have to be, not with a score as marvelous as Loesser’s or a book as good-humored as Abe Burrows’ (from Jo Swerling’s original) notable for its deliciously distinctive, contraction-free patois.

I hadn’t realized how much I missed this show (which I last saw 13 years ago) until I experienced Drury Lane Theatre’s sparkling revival under director Dan Knechtges, whose spry, swinging, balletic-athletic choreography is ideally executed by a lively ensemble led by Jackson Evans, Alanna Lovely, Pepe Nufrio and Glen Ellyn native Erica Stephan.

Nathan Detroit (Jackson Evans) sweet-talks his longtime fiancee Miss Adelaide (Alanna Lovely) in “Guys and Dolls,” running through June 9 at Drury Lane Theatre. Courtesy of Brett Beiner

Evans plays marriage-averse Nathan Detroit, whose comely showgirl fiancee of 14 years Miss Adelaide (terrific work by Lovely, especially on the empowering ditty “Take Back Your Mink”) is tired of waiting to tie the knot. But Nathan, organizer of the city’s long-running floating craps game, has more pressing problems. He needs a venue for the game and the only place available costs $1,000.

Pepe Nufrio's Sky Masterson delivers an impassioned “Luck Be a Lady” in Drury Lane Theatre's “Guys and Dolls,” directed and choreographed by Dan Knechtges. Courtesy of Brett Beiner

In an effort to secure the money, he bets high-roller Sky Masterson (the suave, subtle Nufrio whose “Luck be a Lady” is a ringing cri de coeur) that he can’t get missionary Sarah Brown (Stephan, a lovely singer) to accompany him to Havana. Promising to provide her with 12 genuine sinners for her struggling Save-a-Soul Mission, Sky convinces the strait-laced Sarah to join him for dinner in Cuba.

Stephan and Nufrio have great chemistry. Their voices are equally complementary as evidenced in their heartfelt duet “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” during which Sky reveals himself worthy of Sarah Brown, who recognizes him for the honorable man he is.

Nkrumah Gatling's Nicely-Nicely Johnson, left, leads his fellow gamblers and the missionaries who want to save their souls in the showstopping “Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat” in Drury Lane Theatre's “Guys and Dolls.” Courtesy of Brett Beiner

Thoroughly entertaining supporting performances come from Jordan Anthony Arredondo as comical tough-guy Harry the Horse; Heidi Kettenring in yet another fine comic cameo as General Cartwright, who threatens to shutter the underperforming mission; and Nkrumah Gatling as the ever-agreeable Nicely-Nicely Johnson. Gatling takes the lead on the roof-raising “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” which was about as ecstatic a showstopper as I’ve seen.

Gatling’s Nicely duets with Christopher Llewyn Ramirez’s Benny Southstreet on the foot-tapping titular tune, and they team up with Spencer Davis Milford’s newsstand operator Rusty Charlie for the irresistible opener “Fugue for Tinhorns.”

Conductor and co-music director Christopher Sargent and set designer Angela Weber Miller and lighting designer Lee Fiskness (whose neon-accented sewer setting for “Luck Be a Lady” is striking) also deserve kudos.

I agree with those who claim “Guys and Dolls” is dated. Referring to women as “dolls” is as cringe-inducing as Sky’s assertion that “figuring weight for age, all dolls are the same.” Of course that’s before he meets Sarah.

But it’s worth noting that by the time the curtain comes down, the sinners have reformed. Nathan has gone legit; Sky has joined the mission. The couples marry, giving Sarah and Adelaide the men and life they desire. Women prevail, and on their own terms.

And while that does not a feminist show make, I’d argue that “Guys and Dolls” has feminist undertones. However unintentional, it’s there on the periphery. And you don’t have to squint too hard to perceive it.

• • •

Location: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, (630) 530-0111,

Showtimes: 1:30 p.m. Wednesday; 1:30 and 7 p.m. Thursday; 7 p.m. Friday; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday through June 9

Tickets: Start at $94.95, dinner-theater packages available

Running time: About 2 hours, 40 minutes, with intermission

Parking: Free in the adjacent lot

Rating: For all ages

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