BEVERLY — “Fugue for Tinhorns” easily qualifies as one of the most enchanting opening numbers in the musical theater canon. Composer and lyricist Frank Loesser not only introduces the lovable gamblers of Broadway’s seedier side; he captures, with angelic harmonies and delightfully clever lyrics, the cadence of characters out of a Damon Runyon tale.
The North Shore Music Theatre hits the jackpot with this production of Loesser’s “Guys and Dolls,” delivering the musical theater triple threat: heavenly vocals, believable performances, and breathtaking choreography. Directed by Mark Martino with an exacting eye for detail, and brilliantly paced by musical director Craig Barna, it embraces all the beauty of Loesser’s music without losing any of the fun of the story.
Set in Times Square decades before it went upscale, “Guys and Dolls” is a simple boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl fable. But because the boy happens to be a high-stakes gambler by the name of Sky Masterson (Kevin Vortmann), and the girl is a missionary named Sarah Brown (Kelly McCormick) who works at a failing chapter of a Salvation Army-like organization, the dramatic tension is built in. Key among the other guys and dolls are Nathan Detroit (Jonathan Hammond), who runs “the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York,” and his long-suffering fiancee, the nightclub dancer Miss Adelaide (Mylinda Hull).
With ballads that include the goosebump-inducing “I’ll Know,” “My Time of Day,” “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” and “More I Cannot Wish You,” some directors are tempted to focus on the music at the expense of the characters, allowing them to become cartoons. Not here. With the glorious-voiced Vortmann, McCormick, Hammond, and Hull, Martino has found performers who flesh out their portrayals with little idiosyncrasies that draw the audience in to the romance. Vortmann plays Sky as a sly tough guy with a heart of gold, while McCormick’s Sarah may be naive, but she’s got a lot of spunk. Hammond gives Nathan Detroit just enough of a desperate edge to keep the audience, and, more important, Adelaide, worried about him.
The show-stopping number, “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat,” belongs to Wayne W. Pretlow, who plays Nathan’s sidekick, Nicely-Nicely, with a goofy charm that is part Lou Costello and part Curly from “The Three Stooges.”
Martino’s directing skills are most apparent in the scene transitions — from the Save-a-Soul Mission to the Hot Box Club, from Havana to the sewers of New York. These shifts can be challenging, particularly on an arena stage, but Martino keeps the action animated, while Barna’s 10-piece orchestra never misses a beat.
Choreographer Michael Lichtefeld takes his company through routines that are creative and athletic, always building on the narrative. Standout production numbers include “A Bushel and a Peck,” with the Hot Box Girls in hilarious headpieces, and “The Crap Game Dance.” There each member of the male ensemble adds his own unique leap or spin, yet they all come together to create the impression of a flurry of men rolling dice.
“Guys and Dolls” is a captivating valentine to New York characters, and this production is a seductive gamble with a beautiful payoff.