Adelaide (center - Melissa WolfKlain) and her "debutantes" (Jill Slyter and Brigitte Losey) . Photo: Jessica

Guys and Dolls

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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It was a pleasure to see San Francisco Playhouse’s outstanding production of the beloved Tony award-winning 1950 musical, “Guys and Dolls.” It’s based on several stories and characters created by Damon Runyon about Broadway gamblers (“guys”) and their girlfriends (“dolls”) in the 1930s. The show includes tuneful standards like “Luck Be a Lady,” “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat,” and “I’ve Never Been in Love Before.”

SF Playhouse’s production of “Guys and Dolls” seemed better than ever under Bill English’s accomplished direction, with a talented cast of local actors performing the fabulous melodic music and ingenious lyrics by Frank Loesser. Sophisticated sets, great period costumes, and creative choreography made the musical come alive.

You know that a musical that opens with a complex but melodic musical fugue about horse racing will be over-the-top fun. In “Fugue for Tinhorns,” better known as “I’ve Got a Horse Right Here,” a trio argue over their picks in a horse race. The song sets the stage for the main stories of the love life of two guys and two dolls.

Nathan Detroit (Joel Roster), the operator of the “oldest established permanent floating crapgame in New York,” needs to raise $1,000 to secure a location for his game. So, Nathan proposes a $1,000 bet he thinks he can’t lose against Sky Masterson (David Toshiro Crane), a gambler willing to bet on virtually anything. Sky must take a woman Nathan chooses to dinner in Havana, Cuba. When Sky agrees, Nathan picks the chaste, buttoned-up Sargeant Sarah Brown (Abigail Esfira Campbell) of the Save-a-Soul Mission.

Meanwhile, Nathan’s long-suffering 14-year fiancée, Adelaide (Melissa WolfKlain), the Hot Box nightclub burlesque dancer and singer, wants only to get married and settle down with Nathan. If nothing else, perhaps their wedding will cure her persistent psychosomatic cold. As the plot thickens into Act II, the music and lyrics continue to enchant until the satisfying ending.

Because “Guys and Dolls” was written over 73 years ago, a few of the references may not be familiar to current audiences. Barbasol, a shaving cream, and Vitalis, a hair tonic, were ordinary men’s grooming aids (surprisingly, both are still available). New York’s Roxy Theater was a large movie palace built in 1927. Rogers Peet was an upscale men’s haberdashery that Adelaide considered “respectable, conservative, and clean.” Finally, Nathan Detroit lovingly mentioned green and white as “Whitney colors,” the then-livery colors of the super-rich Whitney family horseracing stables.
Although born in Manhattan, Kansas, Damon Runyon (1880 –1946) made his home in New York City, writing humorous and sometimes sentimental stories of gamblers, hustlers, and gangsters. Known by colorful nicknames like “Nathan Detroit,” “Nicely-Nicely Johnson,” and “Big Jule,” Runyon’s characters spoke in a distinct dialect known as Runyonesque, which combined highly formal language with colorful slang. They used the present tense and no contractions whenever possible. Look for their unique speech patterns as you enjoy “Guys and Dolls.”
After five Broadway revivals and many performances worldwide, “Guys and Dolls” still retains its freshness, humor, heart, and soul. Grab tickets while you can. “Guys and Dolls” runs through January 13, 2024. Its length is approximately two hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission. Masks are encouraged but optional. Tickets, $15-$125, are available at or through the box office at 415-677-9596.

By Emily S. Mendel
© Emily S. Mendel 2022 All Rights Reserved

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