Front Row Reviews

“Guys and Dolls”: Everything Old is New Again

by Patricia L. Morin

I used to relish my New Jersey family’s yearly trip to New York’s Times Square at Christmas time. The bright neon lights from various theaters shining down on us, and the hustle and bustle of elegantly dressed people carrying their exquisitely wrapped packages. The Christmas shows, the Rockettes, the music, the opulence of it all.

SF Playhouse’s Director Bill English’s superb revival of the popular “Guys and Dolls” musical pulls us aways from the Broadway theatre glitz of the 50’s production into the dim, realistic light of a post-depression neighborhood

Talented Scenic Designer Heather Kenyon creates an original, multi-scene geometric 1930s set with earth-colored skyscrapers and dark alleys. The doorway of the “Save a Soul Mission” immediately draws attention to the ongoing conflict between saviors and sinners, a scenario active in any neighborhood today.

The story revolves around the lives of two contrasting couples. Nathan Detroit (the fast-paced Joel Roster), an anxious small-time gambler permanently engaged to his frustrated fiancée, Adelaide (the delightful Melissa Wolfklain). Wolfklain shines as a sweet nightclub singer with a seductive burlesque voice. Nathan desperately tries to find a spot for his floating craps game while evading Lt. Brannigan (Alex Hsu), and his fiancée. Both Wolfklain and Roster deliver fine portrayal as long-term partners.

Adelaide (Melissa Wolfklain), Nathan Detroit (Joel Roster) Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Starched Sgt. Sarah Brown (the powerful Abigail Esfira Campbell), of the Manhattan neighborhood’s “Save-a-Soul Mission,” attracts smooth playboy Sky Masterson (savvy David Toshiro Crane). Campbell sings with a nightingale voice that resounds through the house. Both Campbell and Crane blend voices flawlessly when they sing the popular “I’ve Never Been in Love Before.”

Sgt. Sarah Brown (Abigail Esfira Campbell) , Sky Masterson ( David Toshiro Crane)

Much like old and new plays, men gamble on women’s feelings. Sky bets Nathan that he will convince Sarah to fly to Havana, Cuba, and spend the night with him. He wagers on her falling in love with him. Both sexes gamble on love, a timeless theme in Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling’s book.

And then there are Frank Loesser’s lyrics and music, dated yet charming and memorable. A live musical ensemble off stage is led by Music Director Dave Dobrusky, and the time-honored costumes of Kathleen Qiu enhance the spot-on choreography of Nicole Helfer.

I chuckled at Adelaide’s Lament, highlighting the psychological stress unmarried women endure, developing into a psychosomatic cold—a stark contrast to men. This play reflects how far women have come; mirroring SF Playhouse’s strong cast of men’s roles played by women. SF Playhouse showcases a rise in gender parity. The ensemble excels in energy, song, and acting, with standout performances by Kay Loren as “Nicely-Nicely,” Miles Meckling as “Harry the Horse,” and Jessica Coker as “Big Jule.”

SF Playhouse’s “Guys and Dolls” carries a sense of nostalgia, a wonderful feeling of the old Broadway and Time Square–a celebration of love, where everything old becomes new again, and again.

“Guys and Dolls” by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling, Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser, Directed by Bill English, at SF Playhouse, San Francisco Info: to January 13, 2024

Cast: Malia Abayon, Abigail Esfira Campbell, Jessica Coker, David Toshiro Crane, Jurä Davis, Chachi Delgado, Alison Ewing, Alex Hsu, Kay Loren, Brigitte Losey, Miles Meckling, Joel Roster, Jill Slyter, and Melissa Wolfklain.

Photos by Jessica Palopoli