I’m calling on some higher authority to step in and order a stay of disassembly, and to hold the actors, led by Jessie Mueller, Phillipa Soo, James Monroe Iglehart and Steven Pasquale, at the D.C. border. Only 10 performances? For this magnitude of delight, let alone inspiration? May some exalted eminence hear my plea and preserve this experience, or, at least, spirit the whole kit and caboodle — set pieces, props, costumes, orchestra, dancers, stars, da woiks — to another locale and a future life. (Did I hear someone mention Times Square?)
“Guys and Dolls” marks the return of the Kennedy Center’s Broadway Center Stage series, started in 2018 with “Chess” and curtailed by the pandemic after “Next to Normal” in early 2020. The musicals-in-concert series, curated by Jeffrey Finn, the Kennedy Center’s vice president and executive producer of theater, has steadily upped its production values. Finn and company have discarded the illusion that it’s a kind of upgraded workshop, in favor of a modern, streamlined, fully realized evocation of text, music, lyrics, design and movement.
This “Guys and Dolls” represents a pinnacle moment for the series. Allow me to count the ways, beginning with the superb performances of all four stars, ideally suited to their assignments and to revealing the brilliance of Loesser’s words and music, and the wit in the book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows. (Yes, some may find in a musical minted in 1950 some old-timey caricature of both male seduction and female worship of the nuptial altar. But this is, after all, a show based on stories about the city’s flavorful underworld by Damon Runyon, a New York newspaperman who died in 1946.)
Mueller is, in a word, divine as Miss Adelaide, the headliner at the Hot Box Club whose 14-year engagement to Iglehart’s Nathan has resulted in a chronic case of — achoo! — wedding bell blues. She’s been dressed smartly by designer Mara Blumenfeld, whose Technicolor costumes throughout provide consistent dashes of panache: vibrant suits in window pane and pinstripe patterns for the gamblers and becomingly flashy showgirl outfits with feathers and furs for the Hot Box Girls.
“Adelaide’s Lament” is effortlessly hilarious in Mueller’s delivery, and she and Iglehart make of “Sue Me” a sweet paean to matrimony forever on hold. Iglehart masters Nathan’s responsibilities as a lovable commitment-phobe and crap-game organizer, the latter celebrated in the ensemble’s “The Oldest Established,” another of the evening’s endless rollout of surefire numbers. There’s not a clunker or even a so-so song in the gorgeous unity of melody and poetry in Loesser’s score, undoubtedly one of the greatest ever written for Broadway.
“Guys and Dolls” unfolds around two romantic couples of equal weight in the story. One of the glories of Bruni’s production is that an ideal balance between them is sustained. That of course is a tribute to the performers themselves. Soo, of late a beguiling Cinderella in Broadway’s “Into the Woods,” brings an utterly charming combo of propriety and mischief to her Sarah, the Salvation Army “mission doll,” and her sparkling soprano does wonders for “If I Were a Bell” and her nifty duet with Mueller, “Marry the Man Today.”
Pasquale, Soo’s real-life husband, conveys a natural suaveness as Sky Masterson, the big time gambler who woos Sarah on a bet and then, of course, falls for her. No feeling in a musical quite compares to the satisfaction of listening to a voice that embraces the notes of a cherished song with velvety confidence. That’s a quality Pasquale demonstrates lusciously in “My Time of Day” and the eternal crowd-pleaser “Luck Be a Lady.”
I could go on, and I will, because so much thought has gone into so many elements of the show. Set designer Paul Tate de Poo III has devised a sharp variation on the contemporary convention of the onstage orchestra (here a 21-member marvel of aural enchantment, conducted by Kevin Stites), placing the musicians in tilted boxes that look like dice in mid-roll. Or perhaps, with his framing projections of New York City skylines, they’re meant to evoke rooftop bands, serenading the city.
Choreographer Denis Jones infuses the dance sequences with pizzazz, whether via the exhilarating gymnastics for “Luck Be a Lady” or the tangy paso dobles of the nightclub scene in Havana, to which Sky has whisked an increasingly tipsy Sarah away. (This potentially touchy #MeToo scene is handled with comic grace.)
One must tip a fedora, too, to the gallery of gamblers Bruni has bet on. Kevin Chamberlin is the Nicely-Nicely Johnson you’d draft for your all-star team. His “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” is the evening-ending chaser of adrenaline that a great “Guys and Dolls” requires. Matthew Saldivar and Akron Watson join Chamberlin for a boffo “Fugue for Tinhorns,” and Jimmy Smagula mines Harry the Horse expertly for laughs. And Fred Applegate applies polished musicality to empathic Salvation Army stalwart Arvide Abernathy.
All this, and Rachel Dratch, too. Did I neglect to mention that the diminutive Dratch portrays the fearsomely outsize Big Jule? In penciled-in mustache and husky intonations, the “Saturday Night Live” alum embodies the seriously tongue-in-cheek vibe strummed by this dream of a production. “Sublime” is a word that may be bandied about too casually by critics. Well, on this occasion, I have no hesitation in bandying away.
Guys and Dolls, music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, directed by Marc Bruni. Choreography, Denis Jones; music direction, Kevin Stites; sets and projections, Paul Tate de Poo III; costumes, Mara Blumenfeld; lighting, Cory Pattak; sound, Kai Harada and Haley Parcher. With Allison Blackwell, Deon Ridley, Eden Marryshow, Anthony Wayne, Jacqueline Antaramian. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Oct. 16 at the Kennedy Center. kennedy-center.org.