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The fellas are tough, the dames are tougher in Guys and Dolls

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Guys and Dolls has a provenance. People have expectations. Germantown Community Theatre's production of Guys and Dolls is not a lot of things people probably expect it to be. It isn't big and flashy, as it so often is. But nothing is ever big and flashy at GCT.

Amy Hanford's choreography, while ever appropriate, isn't exactly what one might call "high flying." The flatly painted set with its chaser lights looks as though it might have been rented from a local high school, and not every actor on this theater's postage-stamp-sized stage is up to the task they've been assigned. But in this strange case, it's better not to worry about what this Guys and Dolls isn't and focus on what it is. Because this Guys and Dolls, minimally directed by Marler Stone, is a refreshingly human-scaled musical that has gained more than it has lost in the downsizing. It's helped along in no small part by an able cadre of character actors whose singing voices almost allow us to forget that the music is canned.

It's tough on an author when his name is turned into an adjective. Suddenly, you can't see what Shakespeare was actually up to because of all the Shakespearean crap in the way. And when he's badly managed, poor Damon Runyon, whose streetwise tales serve as the template for Guys and Dolls, can vanish in a cliché avalanche of all things Runyonesque.

Runyon wrote about colorful tough guys and two-bit hustlers with names like Harry the Horse and Big Jule, who live to shoot dice, booze it up, play the ponies, and chase the dolls. Before Tony Soprano whacked anybody, Runyon was writing about charming wiseguys like Nathan Detroit and Sky Masterson who never use contractions and are so bent on games of chance they will bet everything they have on which cube of sugar a fly will light on first. One false move, and these characters turn into cartoons straight out of the Sunday funnies. That never happens at GCT.

Audiences can tell when an actor is having a really good time, and Emily Chateau seems to be having a blast as Miss Adelaide, a close relative of the bubble-headed Billie Dawn from Born Yesterday, and Audrey, the faintly masochistic working girl in Little Shop of Horrors. "Adelaide's Lament" — a pop-psyche ballad about how bad self-esteem can give you a cold — is one of musical theater's great comic songs, and Chateau finds all the tender juicy bits that make it so much more than a knee-slapper. Pretty and smarter than she seems, this burlesque dancer is a perfect foil for her ne'er-do-well fiançe Nathan, played by John Hemphill, who's too married to his floating craps to ever say "I do."

GCT's Guys and Dolls boasts several excellent supporting performances from vets like Jim Dale Green (who can't quite put over the rocking gospel of "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat") and Wesley Barnes (who seems to channel a young Steve Allen), but if there's a star in the chorus it's Vince "Vinnie" Lemorrocco who turns his small stature into the evening's best sight gag as Big Jule, a little guy with a big gun who you don't want to mess with.

Rob Hanford may not come off as the toughest Sky Masterson, but his seduction of Sarah, the play's uptight missionary marm (adorably played by Emily Pettet), is handled with such a light touch that it makes the show's least believable plot device uncharacteristically convincing.

At a time when it's customary for all musical performers to be wired and amplified, there's something special about listening to the unfiltered human voice, and that is what you get at GCT. It's also fun to watch choreography created for people, not dancers.

The expression "community theater" has very nearly become a pejorative when it shouldn't be. GCT's Guys and Dolls is very good community theater, and, for all of its shortcomings, it's often superior to some of the region's splashier productions.

Through June 13th

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