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Safe bet: 'Guys and Dolls' at Summerstock

Shannon Hurleigh has directed a great production of the classic Broadway show. Produced by Edmond’s Summerstock Productions, in partnership with UCO’s College of Fine Arts & Design and Broadway Tonight, the show runs at Mitchell Hall Theatre on the UCO campus through June 28.

“Guys and Dolls,” based on the stories and characters of Damon Runyon, has music and lyrics by Frank Loesser with book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows. It tells the story of a gambling guy and a mission doll who navigate a love story through floating crap games and trips to Havana; their story intersects with that of a burlesque dancer and the owner/manager of the aforementioned crap game. Both stories are peopled with other gamblers, missionaries, and the folk of New York’s Broadway district.

Emily J. Pace played mission worker Sgt. Sarah Brown with knowing charm. Pace has a vulnerability that belies her strong voice, and Miss Sarah is both vulnerable and no fool. Vocally, she was well balanced by Nate Stukey as Sky Masterson, a role he carried well despite his youth. Stukey’s voice and bearing are well up to the task; give him a decade and he may well own the part. Sky is a generally bored and very successful gambler who will bet on almost anything. He takes a bet from Nathan Detroit that he can get the mission doll to go to Havana with him and feigns repentance. Not fooled, Miss Sarah keeps him at a distance—until she needs his help.

Nathan Detroit (Michael Stewart) is searching for a place to hold his continuously floating crap game; the bet with Sky is to acquire some dough to “rent” a space. Stewart gave us a Nathan who is on the knife-edge of believably sly and sincere at the same time; he skillfully stops just short of caricature. Nathan’s fiancé of 14 years, Adelaide (Bailey Maxwell), a burlesque stripper, believes that he long ago gave up the crap game. Maxwell’s Adelaide was brilliantly innocent and touchingly devoted—a perfect counterpoint to Stewart’s Nathan. Both Maxwell and Stewart avoided the pitfalls of these two characters, whose class-indicator speech can become exaggerated; they sang the roles, not just the songs.

The narrative ‘chorus’ of the piece is Nicely-Nicely Johnson, played with energy and wit by returning UCO alumnus Justin Larman. Larman gave us a wisely comic character, beautifully balanced in the nexus of the two couples and the intricacies of the plot. He also delivered the show-stopper in the second act with verve and vocal power; as Nicely-Nicely becomes immersed in his “conversion” experience, Larman brought everyone along for the spiritual ride.

The supporting cast was equally strong. Mark Johnson, a powerful singer, was mission worker Arvide Abernathy, a wise uncle to Miss Sarah. Isaiah Williams delivered a properly menacing and amusingly self-absorbed Big Jule, the gangster gambler who oversees Nathan’s endeavors. Ann Marie McGinley took General Cartwright (often a cameo role) and lifted it to heights of unsuspected flirtation. All of the gamblers, street folk, burlesque dancers made a solid community in which the main characters interacted as people in a context. There were a couple of rather quiet and definitely adorable newsboys in the mix as well.

Hurleigh’s choreography was a great complement to the action. The cast executed each dance with both the synchronicity and individuality called for at any given moment. In particular, the oldest established, permanent, dancing crap game in New York was a brilliant piece of story-telling; while it felt just a little ‘stagey’ at the beginning, it became a perfectly believable set of actions and culminated in a perfectly orchestrated roll of the dice.

Set design, costumes, and lights all worked together and provided an environment that all of the characters and all of the action could inhabit with clarity and coherence. Music direction by Mariann Searle was balanced and effective; the orchestra played its supporting role with an appropriately understated brilliance.

“Guys and Dolls” plays for one more weekend at UCO’s Mitchell Hall Theatre; shows are Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Contact the box office at (405) 974-3375 or purchase tickets online at