Austin Playhouse’s ‘Guys and Dolls’ is a living cartoon, and that’s a good thing

Contributed by Austin Playhouse

Capping off an eclectic season of classic works, regional premieres and whimsical farces, Austin Playhouse’s new production of “Guys and Dolls” brings the stage musical to life with energy and color.

Based on the short stories of Damon Runyan, “Guys and Dolls” tells the story of two gamblers, Nathan Detroit and Sky Masterson, and the women they fall for, Miss Adelaide and Sarah Brown, among a New York filled with colorful criminals, driven missionaries and chorus girls. With a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows and music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, it’s a light-hearted romantic comedy in the classic Broadway vein.

Austin Playhouse’s production, directed by Don Toner with musical direction by Susan Finnigan, emphasizes the good-natured humanity underneath the wise guy patter by turning “Guys and Dolls” into something of a living cartoon. With colorful, vibrant costumes designed by Diana Huckaby — from loud, ill-fitting suits to burlesque chorus girl outfits — the large cast comes to bouncy life on the busy streets, and sewers, of a nostalgic New York City that never quite actually existed.

Adding to this cartoonish nature, the cast gleefully ham up the broad strokes of their characters, with outrageous physicality and delightful vocalizations. Boni Hester’s Adelaide fits particularly well within this outsized, chaotic world, her mixture of ditziness and rage melding to form a delightful comedic foil to Steve Shearer’s hectic and harried Nathan Detroit. Jarret Million as Sky Masterson and Sarah Fleming Walker’s Sarah Brown, on the other hand, give the show a more grounded, romantic center that prevents the production from teetering over completely into farce.

However, it is in the more farcical moments that this production is at its strongest. Scott Shipman brings down the house as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, especially when it comes to “Sit Down, You’re Rocking The Boat,” the show’s big 11 o’clock number. Paired with Kyle G. Stephens’ Benny Southstreet, the two tall, gangly actors bring a vaudevillian flair to their scenes that engenders some of the biggest laughs.

In 2017, “Guys and Dolls” doesn’t particularly have anything pointed to say about our contemporary world, and the show’s outdated gender and relationship politics can get in the way of its universal emotional truths. However, as Toner and the rest of the Austin Playhouse crew realize, that can be the show’s strength, by creating a fun, frantic and frolicsome romp that provides some much-needed escapism into a time gone by (that perhaps never actually was).

‘GUYS AND DOLLS’
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through June 25
Where: Austin Playhouse, 6001 Airport Blvd.
Cost: $42-$46
Information: 512-476-0084, austinplayhouse.com.

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