Guys and Dolls is ostensibly about the battles of the sexes in the tradition of Hollywood’s screwball comedies– men and women outwitting and outwooing each other with a dose of emasculation. Its vaguely 1930s setting is a mythologized, exaggerated vision of New York City where people sincerely use words like “crooks” and “dolls,” gangsters scheme to make a quick buck and women yearn for marital bliss. Its genre and classic marriage plot are a time capsule to an older way of looking at men, women and the world. But this doesn’t mean it’s Pleasantville. Long Beach Playhouse’s Guys and Dolls is a clever, self-aware comedy with winning leads and lyrics that are as funny and sharp as ever.
Perpetual grifter and lovable loser Nathan Detroit (Rick Reischman) runs a craps game for the desperate gamblers of New York City, but he needs a pile of $1,000 cash to secure his next illegal venue. Nathan tricks gambler-at-large Sky Masterson (John Carroll) into a bet to raise the funds: seduce the local mission’s evangelist, Sarah Brown (Andrea R. Pincus), or pay up. Meanwhile, Nathan’s perpetual fiancée Adelaide (Courtney Riel) pressures him to finally pull the trigger on their 14-year engagement. A comedy of unrequited love and cheating gamblers unfolds as the two couplings wax and wane.
Guys and Dolls is a fun watch. The 67-year-old lyrics twist and turn and stop on a dime, mixing slang and musicality seamlessly. The cast embraces the musical’s inherent slapstick elements, playing up the many confusions, head-turns and flights of fancy– shout-out to the ridiculous henchmen Nicely Nicely (Russell Montooth), Benny (Andrew Knifer) and Rusty (Tyler Gray). The production’s set design and choreography is a tad on the simple side but serviceable; the true strength of this show is the charisma of the cast at large.
The songs are memorable and addictive. Reischman and Riel earn laughs and poignancy in the irreverent “Adelaide’s Lament” and oddly affecting “Sue Me.” And there’s always the classic love and friendship songs to balance against the cheeky cynicism. The musical is a well-oiled, lean and mean entertainment machine. The plot is breezy and silly, a farce to take us from one impeccably calculated song to another.
Its sexual politics are invariably dated, but never outright troubling– think I Love Lucy, not Taming of the Shrew. The musical avoids that moribund 1950s tendency to lecture the audience on the importance of traditional institutions like heterosexual marriage and the church. The last thing we need is the obligatory scene of a priest lecturing the congregate, AKA the audience (cough cough Carousel). Guys and Dolls skewers just about everything; ultimately charm and trickery matter the most in New York City.
It’s a tongue-in-cheek love letter to a long-gone (if it was ever there) city of pinstripes and cartoonish accents. The romantic hijinks and gambling tomfoolery evoke the charms of a classic screwball comedy. And the cast supplies nimble performances throughout as they weave through the melodies and tack-sharp dialogue. Drop in for a dose of the Golden Age of Broadway.
Guys and Dolls continues at the Long Beach Playhouse, 5021 Anaheim St., through Aug. 5, with shows every Saturday at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets are $24. For reservations and information, call (562) 494-1014 (option 1) or visit lbplayhouse.org.