Rolling the dice

Nicholas Rodriguez rolls the dice of his fate in the dramatic show stopper “Luck be a Lady” in the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s production of Guys and Dolls.

Milwaukee Rep artistic director Mark Clements has hit the jackpot with his rousing, colorful and finely tuned season opener Guys and Dolls. Don’t gamble on missing this surefire box-office hit — get your tickets now because they’re certain to go fast.

Why so certain? First of all there’s the music. Frank Loesser’s score is among the most tuneful and popular in the American musical canon. The hits just keep coming, from the exuberant “If I Were a Bell” to the plaintive “I’ll Know (When My Love Comes Along),” from the gospel-infused “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat” to the dramatic “Luck Be a Lady,” which Frank Sinatra made into a chart topper.

Arrive at the theater prepared to clap your hands and tap your feet — when you’re not standing on them, that is, to deliver an ovation.

The book, by Abe Burrows and Joe Swerling, is faithful to the short stories by journalist Damon Runyan that inspired it. The quirky characters and dialogue throb with the authenticity provided by the newspaperman who walked the nighttime streets of post-Prohibition Manhattan with a pencil and reporter’s pad.

The play’s simple, classic comedic plot follows two seemingly hopelessly mismatched couples as they navigate their way toward togetherness amid the underground crapshoots and burlesque parlors of New York’s seedier side. The characters seem of interest only to the Christian missionaries hell-bent on saving them and the police determined to lock them up.

The plot is set in motion by gambling impresario Nathan Detroit (a likeable Richard R. Henry), operator of “the oldest established, permanent-floating crap game in New York.“ The heat is on Nathan, both in the form of Lt. Brannigan (a menacing Matt Daniels) and Miss Adelaide (Kelley Faulkner), his long-intended bride.

A burlesque dancer at the Hot Box club, Adelaide has been waiting 14 years for Detroit to lead her down the aisle to a happily-ever-after life with six kids and a green picket fence. Now she’s ready to walk on Nathan if he doesn’t give up the dice and show her the ice (that’s 1940s-speak for “put a ring on it.”).

Adelaide is the showiest character in a cast full of them, and Faulkner seizes the opportunity. With impeccable timing and with what seem to be almost spontaneous physical and vocal embellishments, she’s a show stopper among show stoppers.

Adelaide’s female counterpart is the evangelical crusader Sarah Brown (a wren-like Emma Rose Brooks who’s itching to take flight). She’s tasked with some of the score’s most demanding vocals, and she delivers, showing a stunning range that darts from her crystal coloratura presentation of “I’ll Know” to the down-to-earth giddiness of “If I Were a Bell.”

Brown’s romantic mismatch is the hardened heartthrob Sky Masterson (Nicholas Rodriguez), a dapper peacock who can have any “dame" and chooses “nun” (OK, technically, she’s a missionary).

Rodriguez is a powerhouse performer who arrives at The Rep with a robust resume of high-profile roles and a tenor so rich and strong it can raise goose bumps. His performance is magnetic and soulful. We watch his heart melt, and we believe it.

Another talent worthy of mention is Michael J. Farina (as Nicely-Nicely Johnson), an actor, singer and dancer of impeccable talent who uses his well-honed technique to outshine ensemble members who are younger and suppler.

That’s quite a compliment, because the ensemble’s members are near perfection. In addition to proving excellent individually in their song-and-dance numbers, they work together under the precision musical direction of Dan Kazemi and choreographer Stephen Mear like a well-oiled machine.

They also present some magical moments of vocal harmony.

Mear puts the cast through some of the showiest footwork you’re likely to see on a Milwaukee stage. To the credit of Clements and Mear, the song and dance numbers transition organically from the dialogue and plot, which will make it easier for younger audiences, who are less-accustomed to musical convention, to absorb.

The balletic staging of "Luck Be a Lady," the rousing chorus and character flourishes of "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat" and the extravagant storytelling and breathtaking moves of "Havana" are musical highlights. But equally effective are the quiet, heartfelt revelations of "I'll Know" and "More I Cannot Wish You," the later delivered with grandfatherly tenderness and conviction by David Hess as Arvide Abernathy.

The play’s credibility is also enhanced by the actors’ remaining fully in character even while executing some of the most elaborate moves. They are helped along in accomplishing this feat by the gorgeous period costuming by Alexander Tecoma.

The characters and costumes also create the scenic atmosphere. Scott Davis’s design is minimal but effective, just enough to ground the action while leaving the proscenium thrust stage of the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater wide open for the soaring dance sequences.

Two dancers deserve special mention. Adrian Aguilar, who plays Benny Southstreet with an amusing dumbstruck flair, completes some of the evening’s most complicated moves with remarkable finesse. No matter what distortion the movement demands, Aguilar’s body is always perfectly in line.

Brian Collier, who carries the thankless role of Angie the Ox, also grabs a lot of attention during the dance numbers. Collier seems to defy gravity, finessing soaring leaps and gymnastic tumbles without seeming to break a sweat.

Besides thanking Clements for showcasing this important musical classic with such style and verve, we must also shower him with kudos for selecting such a beautifully and appropriately diverse cast that echoes the rich community of individuals who populate the play. Runyon’s characters are a quirky collection, but they look out for each other despite their differences. We see this in the chances they take for Nathan when Chicago mobster Big Jule (a perfectly cast Andrew Varela) comes to town with a bankroll, a handgun and a bone to pick.

We see it in an even more moving way in the play’s only moments of sisterhood — the touching numbers “Adelaide Meets Sarah” and “Marry the Man Today” — when the uptight evangelist and the brazen showgirl bond over their mutual nemesis (men) and their mutual longing (love). Outside of these numbers, which are hardly feminist anthems, the "dolls" get historically accurate treatment, which should show how far society has come. But it might not resonate that way given the unabashed misogyny that continues to plague American society.

Clements’ commitment to diversity extends offstage as well as on. Rodriguez is an out LGBT activist, and his pitch-perfect portrayal of the macho Masterson helps break down stereotypes in the real world, just as when athletes emerge from the closet.

Rodriguez, who is tall, macho, thick and broad shouldered, has spent much of his career smashing stereotypes through his portrayals of iconic masculine characters such as Curly in Oklahoma, Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music, Billy Bieglow in Carousal.” He’s even played Tarzan.

According to reviews available online, he received the same level of acclaim for those performances that he deserves for this one.

On stage

Guys and Dolls continues at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Quadracci Powerhouse Theater through Oct. 29. Call 414-224-9490 or go to www.milwaukeerep.com

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