Guys & Dolls ensemble members The Clinton Area Showboat Theatre's production of Guys & Dolls is wonderfully entertaining and loaded with personality, but in the role of Miss Adelaide - the put upon showgirl with the psychosomatic head cold - Kay Ann Allmand is so sensationally enjoyable that her portrayal practically defies description.

Permit me to give it a shot anyway.

Adelaide, with her squeaky, lightly nasal Noo Yawk accent, arrives about twenty minutes into Guys & Dolls, and Allmand's dizzily empty-headed readings immediately put the audience in her corner. But not long after, she's given her first solo in Frank Loesser's musical-comedy classic, at it's then that you realize just how special this performance will be.

In a show that doesn't feature a single lackluster number, "Adelaide's Lament" - wherein she bemoans her 14-year engagement to gambler Nathan Detroit - might be its best, and Allmand's hysterically dry resignation, describing her "chronic organic syndrome" and such, is a stitch. Yet the actress' phrasing is so delicate, and her emotional connection to the lyrics so deeply felt, that Allmand transcends an already transcendent number; her wit makes you cry with laughter, and her plaintive sweetness nearly makes you cry, period. The applause she received at Thursday's opening-night production was thunderous, and from that moment on, Allmand was never around quite as often as you wished she'd be.

Thankfully, the show is so chock-full of ingratiating figures and divine musical numbers that you're rarely given opportunities to miss her. Under the direction of the Showboat's artistic director, Craig A. Miller, this Guys & Dolls is a terrifically upbeat, thoroughly winning endeavor, and all the more noteworthy for overcoming a truly shaky opening.

Scenic artist Joshua Jeffrey has designed some spectacular set pieces; the urban exteriors, in particular, are beautifully detailed, and their height and breadth especially impressive given the Showboat's limited stage space. Is it possible, though, that the set is hindering the actors' ability to hear the backstage orchestra? Several early numbers found the performers frequently rushing ahead of the music, and once those on-stage seemed to realize that, their volume (and exuberance) noticeably dipped; I felt the actors hesitant about selling the songs with too much vigor. And while Stephen Blaschke's choreography (some of it extrapolated from the show's 1992 Broadway revival) has a high-energy infectiousness, the lack of movement in the opening "Fugue for Tinhorns" and "Follow the Fold" indicated a lack of expected, and necessary, pep.

However, those fears soon proved unfounded - this cast could likely sit on stools for Guys & Dolls Unplugged and leave the crowd thoroughly satisfied.

Joshua Estrada in Guys & DollsIn Sky Masterson, Joshua Estrada has found a perfect role for his voice and unforced sincerity, and his comic confidence is a pleasure to witness. As Sky became rattled in Act II, the actor appeared to become a little rattled, too - he stumbled over several lines - but Estrada remains a first-rate romantic lead, and Alison Nicole Luff proves a dynamic partner for him; Luff makes Sarah Brown's transition from steely evangelist to loopy drunk to crestfallen ingénue completely captivating.

And what support they're given! Josh Wright and Mark X. Laskowski are delightfully dopey cronies - Laskowski manages to suggest both Laurel and Hardy - and Patrick Stinson and Will Morgan provide funny, stylized tough-guy caricatures. (Among the show's robust costumes, the blazing red suit that Sonia Elizabeth Lerner found for Morgan was a particularly smart choice, as this electric stage presence was likely to be capturing our attention anyway.) Nicole Horton adds an amusingly affectionate Minnesota accent to her General Cartwright, while Rob Engelson, Steven Piechocki, and Jennifer Gilbert again demonstrate their gifts for making minor roles enormous in spirit.

As for Nathan Detroit, he's played by the show's director, and Miller is terrifically appealing considering how miscast he is. In temperament, Miller doesn't seem to possess either the desperation or the harried drive that the role calls for; even when plotting Nathan's snakier schemes, the actor comes across like a really calm, really nice guy. (It seems inconceivable that this Nathan would keep Adelaide dangling all those years.)

Yet the timing on Miller's punchlines is continually sharp, he's an imaginative physical comedian (threatened with marriage, Nathan squirms and whines like an 8-year-old refusing to go to school), and the gambler's affection for Adelaide feels genuine; the couple's "Sue Me" duet is both riotous and unexpectedly touching, much like Guys & Dolls itself. A hearty congratulations to Miller on both the show and the Showboat's summer season, and I hope he, and the other talents enlisted from Miller's Texas Repertory Theatre, return - I'm already thinking of about a hundred roles I'd like to see them perform. Kay Ann Allmand is welcome to at least half of them.



For tickets, call (563) 242-6760.

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