It matters not how many times you've seen Guys and Dolls — and who hasn't, time and again, on film and stage? — I'll lay you odds of five to nine that the current rendition by the Black Rep is the first version you've seen that springs to life with a quiet ballad rather than a bolt of energy.
The production begins, as the musical always does, with an amusing ballet that depicts Manhattan pickpockets and hookers preying on tourists. Then, with the arrival of Nathan Detroit, the comedy kicks in — at least it's supposed to. When Abe Burrows wrote Guys and Dolls in 1950, musicals tended to have dual plot lines: one for romance, the other for laughs. The put-upon Nathan is here for comedy. He's been engaged to the long-suffering Miss Adelaide (the sweetly bemused Roz White Gonsalves) for fourteen years; just now he cannot find a location for his big crap game. But instead of eliciting humor, Gary E. Vincent is the least amusing actor on the stage. His Nathan is a scared rabbit — which only works because Whit Reichert plays the harassing police inspector like Elmer Fudd. Wrong, of course, but right here, because Reichert generates the laughs that Vincent cannot.
Now the male chorus of underworld ruffians chimes in to praise "the oldest established" permanent floating crap game in New York, a sure-fire rouser if ever there was one. But what's with all the dark suits and white shirts? These guys are dressed for a funeral, not a musical.
Enter high-roller Sky Masterson. Nathan bets Sky a thousand smackers that he cannot take Sister Sarah, a straight-arrow Salvation Army missionary, on a dinner date to Havana. Now, as the romantic plot line ensues — and this is as contrived a romance as any in the annals of musical comedy — the show usually slows down. But at the Black Rep, the meeting of Sky and Sarah is when Guys and Dolls takes off. Standing together in the mission, framed by two dramatic shafts of light, J. Samuel Davis and Sophia Stephens sing the stuffing out of Frank Loesser's oft-overlooked ballad "I'll Know."
To the extent that the evening works, it's because Davis does double duty: His Sky is both straight man and comic. He exudes bonhomie. He doesn't even have to open his mouth; Davis elicits warm laughs simply by being onstage. At the end of Act One he begins to croon "I've Never Been in Love Before" with his hands in his pockets. How smooth is that?
But as good as Davis is — which is very good indeed — there's a sense that through the years productions of Guys and Dolls have strayed off course. Directors like Ron Himes seem to have forgotten that this is a story about a very specific, localized area of New York City: Broadway. (Does anyone still read the droll Damon Runyon stories upon which the musical is based?) How else to explain the billboard-laden set that has nothing to do with Times Square? One sign even promotes New Orleans. Another, for a gun shop, sports a huge revolver that seems wildly out of place.
Millie Garvey's animated choreography and movement evoke the locale, but little else does, leaving this as an evening redeemed by individual performances. In addition to Gonsalves' ingenuous Miss Adelaide and Stephens' plaintive Sister Sarah (she has great fun with "If I Were a Bell"), there's solid support from Drummond Crenshaw's Nicely-Nicely Johnson (he delivers nicely with the classic "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat") and the Benny Southstreet of Kelvin Roston Jr., who has developed great stage poise since his Black Rep debut four years ago in Damn Yankees. But primarily the night belongs to J. Samuel Davis. Instead of a necktie, he should be wearing a keg of brandy around his neck, because every time he's onstage — regardless of whether he's rolling the dice in "Luck Be a Lady" or merely smiling his infectious "I dare you not to have a good time" smile — Davis is like a Saint Bernard to the rescue.