"Guys and Dolls" and I go way back.
Family lore has it that I was taken to a production of the Frank Loesser musical in San Francisco when I was around 4. My recollections of the show drawn from Damon Runyon's stories about New York gamblers and gangsters are more surreal than specific. And my frame of reference of the experience wasn't New York, but downtown San Francisco, where I met more interesting characters offstage: sailors from all nations; busy businessmen heading somewhere in a hurry; dressed-up ladies tick, tick, ticking their high heels toward the Emporium; and gentlemen going nowhere except a convenient doorway where they could sit and drink their Pepsi (at least I assumed it was Pepsi) from a brown paper bag.
These people never broke into song and dance, but they were my favorites, rumpled, but dressy, and having plenty of time to chat with a little blond kid from the Sunset District. And, they would talk, endlessly, but always with the warning to study carefully and get a good job so I wouldn't end up like them.
To me, their lives didn't seem so bad, living in a downtown surrounded by abundance and the racing sheets for the Bay Area's three tracks.
So, whenever I see a production of "Guys and Dolls," I unpack a lot of baggage as I settle into my seat in time to hear the onstage gambling fraternity sing about how they, "got the horse right here ... ."
That was the case at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek recently, when the magical tale was spun before me again in a bittersweet fashion, as I realized many of those on stage were three or four generations removed from Runyon's original stories.
Still, it is an excellent production, from the colorful, evocative set by Kelly Tighe to the classic music played by the orchestra directed by Matt Smart and sung by the cast led by director-choreographer Kikau Alvaro for the Diablo Theatre Company.
My quibble with the production was the way some of the gamblers were given characterizations that were more cartoonlike than colorful, due, I think, to the evolution of stereotypes that doesn't serve the characters well. Characters like gambling magnate Nathan Detroit (Gene Bencomo) and his streetwise crew are taken out of their element when portrayed as if they were part of a Three Stooges ensemble. They may have their funny moments, but they are also criminals and streetwise survivors, tough enough to survive in pre-Disney Times Square.
Fortunately, the characterizations become less visible when other characters join the fray -- Tom Reardon as high-rolling ladies man Sky Masterson is terrific, as are Mary Kalita as Adelaide, the long-suffering fiance of Nathan, and Kimberly Nearon as Sister Sarah, the pious missionary "doll" who becomes the centerpiece of a bet that Sky walks into.
And this cast and crew are coupled with Loesser's memorable tunes -- "I'll Know," "I've Never Been in Love Before," "Take Back Your Mink," "Luck Be a Lady" and "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat." Yep, all those great songs and two love stories to boot. That's a pretty safe bet.
Contact Pat Craig at firstname.lastname@example.org.
'GUYS AND DOLLS'
By Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, presented by Diablo Theatre Company
Through: March 1
Where: Dean Lesher Center for the Arts, Civic Drive at Locust, Walnut Creek
Running time: 2 hours,