by Michael Bowen

Guys and Dolls is playing now in London with Obi Wan Kenobi himself, Ewan McGregor, as that most mystically wise of all gamblers, Sky Masterson. By all accounts, it's a drab-looking show, apparently underscoring the characters' tawdry surroundings and mundane desires. In other words, as one of the London reviewers puts it, it's less like a glitzy musical and "more like a play with music."

On the other hand, for the 1992 Broadway revival -- which starred Nathan Lane as his namesake, Nathan Detroit -- director Jerry Zaks chose a Technicolor comic-book look, using cartoonish extremes as contrasts to set off the characters' basic human desires.

One glance at Judith McGiveney's super-saturated costumes for the current Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre production (through July 9) and it's clear that director Roger Welch has chosen the comic-book route. For the title tune, Nicely Nicely Johnson sports a kelly green checkered suit, while Benny Southstreet struts about in neon purple stripes; soon Lt. Brannigan is strolling by, his fedora and overcoat both in Dick Tracy yellow.

Some excellent physical comedy by one of the show's two central couples supports the comic-book approach. As Nathan Detroit -- the small-timer who's forever in search of a venue for his floating game of craps -- Peter Riopelle combines a downtrodden slump and a nasal whine with self-inflicted jokes aimed at his own short stature. As Miss Adelaide -- the star of the Hot Box Girls and the doll who's been engaged to Nathan for 14 years -- Callie McKinney Cabe mixes an impossibly squeaky voice with fierce determination that she and Nathan will some day be married. Come hither, she seems to say while eyeing Nathan, so I can sock you one right in the kisser. During one face-off, Riopelle hitches up his belt, only to see McKinney Cabe respond by hitching up her mink right back at him.

As good as these two performers are at physical comedy, they both also excel at the poignancy of "Sue Me," when Riopelle sincerely pines away and McKinney Cabe finds a heart-rending quality in "I could honestly die." Turns out that cartoons can get at the truth, too.

The choreography of Michael Wasileski, who also plays Angie the Ox, isn't especially inventive for "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat" or the curtain call, but it's exceptional elsewhere. There's the vogueing of the "debutantes" in "Take Back Your Mink," with their pink gowns, their black minks, their cigarette holders extended just so. There's the swirling elevation of Nathan onto the gamblers' shoulders during "The Oldest Established Permanent Floating Crap Game in New York" (and with some nice harmonizing to go with it at the end). And above all, there's the "Luck Be a Lady" sequence: pirouettes and finger snaps, swaggering to the bray of trumpets, neck and shoulder rolls, arms winding up into a crescendo of thrilling movement.

Too bad that flurry of excitement wasn't matched by Todd Hermanson in the central role of Sky Masterson. Hermanson, so memorable as the director in 42nd Street last summer, is disappointing in this flashier role. Perhaps he's aiming at an understated Sky; certainly he's effective in moments of sad intensity.

But the cider story is slow-paced and a couple of scene-ending punch lines are oddly underemphasized. It's a weary performance that isn't helped by the raspiness of Hermanson's voice or his lack of real connection with Sky's love interest, Miss Sarah Brown of the Salvation Army.

Andrea Lutchendorf can certainly stand up and hit the soprano's high notes in "I'll Know" and "I've Never Been in Love Before." Lutchendorf does pull off the difficult feat of appearing progressively drunker in the Havana sequence, evoking romantic tipsiness in "If I Were a Bell" and (much later) a kind of playful determination "Marry the Man Today." But there's so much restraint in her early scenes -- as an evangelist, as an unsuspecting love interest for Sky -- that her character doesn't seem capable of fervor whether moral, romantic or otherwise.

Fortunately, several supporting players shine. (Steven Dahlke leads a booming 18-piece orchestra.) In the role of Arvide Abernathy, Jack Bannon makes clear that while he's an old softie for his granddaughter, Miss Sarah, he can still stand up to any young hoodlum. As Big Jule, the high roller from Chicago, William Rhodes contributes round-bellied, bass-voiced menace. Jadd Davis' voice shines during Nicely Nicely's three big numbers: "Fugue for Tinhorns," the title song and "Rocking the Boat," the call-and-response 11 o'clock number. Over the course of three CdA seasons, Davis' acting has caught up to the quality of his voice, which was never in question. Stepping in as Gen. Cartwright on just two days' notice and filling in for Tamara Schupman (who was physically unable to continue in the role), Interplayers Artistic Director Nike Imoru manages with just a flip of her glove to lord it over subordinates and even flirt a bit with Masterson.

It's been 50 years since Brando and Sinatra appeared in the movie version of Guys and Dolls, and the old broad of a musical still packs plenty of entertainment. The Damon Runyan characters may be stereotypes, but they're just simple folks who have the same desires as the rest of us: to make a living, to fall in love, to get a little respect, coulda been a contendah -- wait, that's another Brando movie.

But if all the gamblers are after is a little "lettuce" and some love, the women they pursue are gamblers, too. Sarah and Adelaide, after all, have to gamble on their men, on whether they'll turn out to be good marriage material.

Adelaide catches Nathan in his inconsistencies in "Sue Me": "You gamble it here, you gamble it there / You gamble on everything, all except me." And by the end, Adelaide has convinced Sarah that there are no guarantees about how their men will turn out, that marriage itself is a gamble: "Marry the man today / Give him the girlish laughter / Give him your hand today / And save the fist for after."

In the guise of light comedy, Miss Adelaide strikes at a basic truth about marriage. In this CdA production -- thanks be to the ghosts of Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows, and to Welch's direction -- the guys and their droll women are both bigger and brighter than in real life. By pushing toward the extremes, cartoons have a way of uncovering what just feels right.

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.