Guthrie's 'Guys and Dolls' has great performances, despite antiquated takes on gender

'Guys and Dolls' at the Guthrie

'Guys and Dolls' at the Guthrie T. Charles Erickson

It's appropriate that Guys and Dolls opened at the Guthrie Theater just as Netflix subscribers were gearing up for a third season of Stranger Things. Just as today's viewers seek refuge in a nostalgic vision of the 1980s, theater patrons of the 1950s were keen to return to the '20s and '30s, the era of the Damon Runyon stories that inspired the musical. Ah, the days when guys were guys and dolls were dolls.

Guys and Dolls

Guthrie Theater

Sixty-nine years after Guys and Dolls bowed on Broadway, of course, the battles of the sexes dramatized by composer/lyricist Frank Loesser with playwrights Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows play very differently. A woman who patiently waits 14 years for a ne'er-do-well gambler to pop the question, a moral crusader who's seduced by a smooth criminal in a single song...what do these stories have to offer us in 2019?

Not much beyond the material's surface-level charms, but director Kent Gash has determined to celebrate those charms to the hilt, while adding enough winks and twists to make the material at least palatable for an audience that would rather not watch a man slip intoxicating beverages to his unknowing date. What if she knows what's in that cocktail...and likes it?

There's no question that much of the audience filling seats at the Wurtele Thrust Stage know exactly what they're getting, and they gleefully lap it up. Gash's hardworking cast and design team deliver a show that demonstrates why this material has endured, in a production that adds a few welcome innovations but generally prefers to spin the roulette wheel rather than reinvent it. (Technically they're rolling craps, but that metaphor isn't quite as serendipitous.)

Scenic designer Jason Sherwood leaves his shiny stage uncluttered to allow room for Dell Howlett's vibrant choreography, starting with a whirlwind montage of street scenes that establish the goofy gangland where good old reliable Nathan Detroit (Rodney Gardiner, making a welcome return after the Guthrie's Metamorphoses) and high roller Sky Masterson (Jeremiah James) will woo their dolls: respectively, Kirsten Wyatt as sassy singer Adelaide and Olivia Hernandez as the moralizing Sarah Brown.

If you're not familiar with Guys and Dolls, you may be surprised by how many show-stopping standards are packed into the show's 165-minute running time. Adelaide and her Hot Box dancers strip to "A Bushel and a Peck," while Sky rolls the dice to "Luck Be a Lady" and a (more or less) reformed sinner takes the stand to sing "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" — the latter a particularly raucous rendition, led by Justin Keyes as Nicely-Nicely Johnson and the invaluable Regina Marie Williams as General Cartwright, that had members of one recent audience leaping to their feet.

Gash and his stars, notably the spot-on Wyatt, also manifest an attention to detail and storytelling that makes the more intimate numbers just as engaging. Gardiner joins Wyatt for a pained second-act "Sue Me" that glories in Loesser's carefully crafted duet for a cold-footed charmer and his pained lover. Hernandez and James unfurl the luxurious melody of "I've Never Been In Love Before" with performances it's hard not to credit even if you're shaking your head at the onstage circumstances that brought them together.

The show's general approach to this problematic material is to play the women as knowing characters who own their bodies and their choices. That sometimes goes with the musical's grain — as in a proudly defiant "Take Back Your Mink" — and sometimes cuts against it, as in Sarah's head-spinning character arc.

It's the biggest liberties that play best of all; in particular the casting of a woman, Karen Wiese-Thompson, in the male-written role of kingpin Big Jule. (It's astounding to realize that the actor, a frequent Ten Thousand Things standout, is only now making her Guthrie debut.) Resplendent in costume designer Kara Harmon's impeccable pinstripe suit accentuated by a shock of deep-hued hair, Wiese-Thompson brings magnetic presence and precise comic timing to the deadpan character.

By and large, though, the production waves air quotes around Guys and Dolls and presents it as a museum piece, making the argument that it ought to be preserved as such. Whether or not you'll buy that argument is probably a question you know the answer to before you buy a ticket — or, perhaps, don't. If you do decide your summer needs some brassy dolls and shifty guys hoofing their hearts out, the Guthrie won't disappoint.