Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Guys and Dolls
San Francisco Playhouse
Review by Patrick Thomas

The Cast
Photo by Jessica Palopoli
There's an old saw that states, "the devil is in the details." One can get the big picture right, but still fail because not enough attention was paid to smaller facets of the work to be done. In theatre, when certain details are ignored, you may not be able to put your finger on exactly why a show isn't resonating with you, but you know something isn't quite right. Conversely, sometimes when a show astounds you, sending you out of the theater with a smile on your face, humming a tune, you still might not be able to determine why you loved it so much, but it's probably because everyone involved with the production got the details right.

So it is with San Francisco Playhouse's absolutely marvelous production of one of the great musical comedies of all time, Guys and Dolls, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and a book by Jo Sterling and Abe Burrows, based on Damon Runyon's stories of the underbelly of New York in the 1930s. For director Bill English, choreographer Nicole Helfer, and their entire cast of 14 have created a show where close inspection of their work reveals a creative process in which all the T's were crossed and all the I's dotted, resulting in 2-1/2 hours of romantic comedy genius.

Runyon's classic (and colorful) figures of New York's underworld–the gamblers, the bookmakers, the strippers, the cops who attempt to thwart their nefarious plans, and the missionaries who aim to save their souls–populate this show that imagines events over the course of a few short days that will change their lives forever.

The action mainly revolves around Nathan Detroit (Joel Roster) and his looonnnnggg-time fiancée Adelaide (Melissa Wolfklain). Detroit is a street hustler who runs "the oldest established, permanent floating crap game in New York," and his "doll" Adelaide performs her nightclub act at the Hot Box. But with the cops turning up the heat on Nathan's underground casino, he's having a hard time finding a new location for the game. With help from his cohorts, Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Jessica Coker, an understudy doing a great job stepping in for Kay Loren), Benny Southstreet (Chachi Delgado), and Rusty Charlie (Jura Davis), Nathan seeks a new location for the game, as lots of "well-heeled shooters" are in town, including Big Jule (Leslie Waggoner, taking on the role usually played by Jessica Coker) and the biggest of all, Sky Masterson (David Toshiro Crane). Nathan has to keep the game a secret not only from the cops, but also from Adelaide, to whom he has promised to never hold another craps game.

With the heat turned up to high, Nathan's only option for the game is the Biltmore Garage. Problem is, Joey Biltmore wants $1000 up front as rent. But when Sky boasts he could talk any of the local dolls into accompanying him on a planned sojourn to Havana, Nathan and Sky enter into a bet for that all-important $1000: that in 24 hours Sky will convince a woman–of Nathan's choice–to take the trip. Nathan instantly names Sister Sara (Abigail Esfira Campbell) of the Save-a-Soul Mission, who has declared her vehement opposition to the sin of gambling. How on earth can Sky win her over? This is musical comedy, so even the unlikeliest of pairs can come together in the end.

No matter where you look in this stellar production you will find evidence of the attention to detail director Bill English has brought to the show. Watch each performer's face and you will see an actor deeply committed to their role. Joel Roster's take on Nathan Detroit is comic genius. His face is so expressive and pliable it must be at least 50% Play-Doh. His brows crinkle delightfully at Adelaide's pleadings, and the pair have a natural chemistry that makes their duets, especially "Sue Me," a joy to behold. As Benny Southstreet, Chachi Delgado (who was a marvel in SF Playhouse's recent production of A Chorus Line) buzzes through his scenes with energy that borders on mania. His eyes widen and blaze when there is danger about, and his smile seems to fill the stage from one side of the proscenium to the other. The entire cast is beautifully balanced. Abigail Esfira Campbell's clear soprano feels precisely in tune with the earnest, committed nature of Sister Sara, and Melissa Wolfklain, who slayed Playhouse patrons in A Chorus Line with her sassy rendition of "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three," is a killer once again, delivering a raucously funny take on "Adelaide's Lament." If you go–and you should–pay close attention to her face as she delivers expressions of interest, then confusion, then understanding–with each look arriving perfectly in time with a musical sting.

All this action takes place on a multi-dimensional set (designed by Heather Kenyon) that takes us from street scenes to the interior of the Hot Box nightclub to Havana to New York's sewers, with smooth and elegant transitions in between, making brilliant use of the theater's turntable.

SF Playhouse's Guys and Dolls is so perfectly produced that one could attend multiple performances and still find delightful instances of the attention to detail that make the show such a winner. This Guys and Dolls is no gamble–more like a sure thing.

Guys and Dolls runs through January 13, 2024, at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Thursdays at 7:00pm, Wednesdays at 2:00pm, Fridays at 8:00pm, Saturdays at 3:00pm and 8:00pm, and Sundays at 2:00pm and 7:00pm. Tickets are $15-$125. For tickets and information, please visit or call the box office at 415-677-9596.