Review: ‘Guys and Dolls’ at Drury Lane Theatre needs a little more spark

When Erica Stephan, one of Chicago’s most exciting and emotionally resonant talents, begins singing “If I Were a Bell,” the potpourri of a production of “Guys and Dolls” at the Drury Lane Theatre finally settles into something worthwhile. But by that point, her Sister Sarah is already in Cuba with Sky Masterson, the tropical cocktails are flowing and it’s almost intermission.

Interestingly, the famously problematic Cuba sequence of this justly beloved musical, originally staged as a virtual kidnapping but shrewdly rehabbed here with Sarah very much in charge, is one of the best of the entire production. More generally, the show just doesn’t have enough of a defined directorial point of view to stand out in an era when Chicago’s musical houses have greatly raised their collective game. Drury Lane’s beautiful last show, “Fiddler on the Roof,” was revelatory; this one is merely is run-of-the-Rialto. At best.

“Guys and Dolls,” it hardly needs repeating, is one of the greatest musicals of all time. With some 14 songs, everything from classic ballads to “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat,” the Frank Loesser score is a font of riches. The book, by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows based on a pair of Damon Runyon stories, has a bushel and a peck of laughs that still work for anyone not yet six feet under. And few musicals, beyond “Fiddler” anyway, have such memorable characters as Nathan Detroit (here, Jackson Evans), Miss Adelaide (Alanna Lovely), Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Nkrumah Gatling), whose first name is always a laugh line (“How you doin’?”), and even Big Jule from Chicago (KC McNeil), who famously insists that Nathan’s crap game has to continue in whatever location it can find until Big Jule from Chicago has recovered his losses by substituting his own spotless dice.

Underneath all of that fun, of course, the musical worries over many of the gendered concerns of Americans in 1950, especially the fear of marriage and settling down and the perils of being attracted to the wrong kind of shiny faced loser. It’s also a great glamorization, and sanitation, of the heyday of New York and Chicago, back when those cities were all citadels of sin, newsstands and nighteries, gambling, gangsters and glamor. Here, nobody really gets hurt, sinners are always capable of reform and the pair of strikingly dominant female leads have a whole lot more power than was true in historical reality.

This uneven, mixed bag of a production, directed and choreographed by a possibly overstretched Dan Knechtges, is certainly serviceable and mostly well sung, but it somehow doesn’t fully fill the stage with life, even as it gets trapped in the kind of overwrought characterizations that “Guys and Dolls” just doesn’t need. Over the years, the best Chicago-area productions always have better trusted the lines than what happens here. Too often, somebody overplays the gag and stomps it into the Times Square subway. The set design, which feels shorn of color, doesn’t help. It’s a strangely cast piece, too, with several massively talented actors on the stage who don’t always seem to be playing the roles best suited to them.

You’ll still likely have some fun and Stephan, such a talent, sounds equally spectacular when she sings, “I’ve never been in love before” alongside Pepe Nufrio, who plays Sky Masterson. If only their emotional connection were on the same level. Overall, this show feels like you could be watching it anywhere and any time: it hits the marks but never seems to have figured out that this particular horse has gotta be winning right here. Can do. Should do.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

Review: “Guys and Dolls” (2.5 stars)

When: Through June 9

Where: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace

Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes

Tickets: $52.95-$105.45 at 630-530-0111 and