How many times have I seen "Guys and Dolls"? Probably more than any other musical, since it's one of my favorites and one of the top five or 10 musical comedies of all time, American or foreign.
But oddly, at Penn-Trafford, which has been producing a musical each spring since 1974, this is the first "Guys and Dolls." Producer/orchestra director Beverly Rubright and stage director Thomas Bekavac have seized the opportunity and introduced some innovations, even while respecting tradition.
You can judge for yourself what they and their huge cast and crew have done, because "Guys and Dolls" continues through this weekend. As Mr. Bekavac says, it's a shame to do all this work and not give as many people as possible a chance to see it.
The chief innovation, common enough in large high schools, is to expand the ensemble. So there isn't just one gaggle of tourists roaming mid-town Manhattan in the opening scene, but fleets. Miss Adelaide and Miss Sarah don't have just a few Hot Box Girls and Salvation Army troops, but flocks -- 14 in the case of Miss Adelaide. Even Salvation Army Gen. Cartright has her own attendant singers.
Then in the key revival meeting in Act 2, each gambler gets a moll, and Nicely-Nicely gets four dancing attendants for "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat," nicely-nicely matched in yellow (the four chief Hot Box dancers, I think). All this not only gets more students in the show, it also helps fill Penn-Trafford's aircraft hanger-wide stage that otherwise would look sparsely inhabited.
This being a high school, some of the bawdy references have been softened. The night club is still called the Hot Box (think about it), but in the girls' first number, "A Bushel and a Peck," they could hardly be more wholesome. Later, they're allowed to shed a few layers in "Take Back Your Mink." And kudos to Maddie Nick's Miss Adelaide who, in singing "I'm not flat as all that" (a reference to her money), indulged herself in a quick glance at her cleavage.
I'm glad that the show resists the temptation to update all the arcane references: let them look up "Hollanderizing." My favorite is "I hope you get stabbed by a Studebaker" (some grandparents will get the joke). Also, Nathan's make-believe "aunt in Pittsburgh" is a real line in the show, not added for this production. The taunt that "the heat is on" so the cop will "have to live on your salary" is probably always timely.
The 975-seat auditorium's stage has an added thrust platform with four walkways, creating a pit for the 21-piece orchestra. Mr. Bekavac isn't shy of using it, bringing several solos and duets right into the audience's lap. Ms. Rubright's 21-piece orchestra includes only a couple of students. It works hard. The set is pretty colorful (mainly its signs); set changes are never as fast as you'd like, in any show, but these aren't bad.
Laura Wurzell's choreography isn't what you'd like in the Havana nightclub scene, but it's surprisingly good in both numbers in the sewer. Kudos to that male ensemble.
At high school musicals, I evaluate the lobby as well. This one looks good, with a big souvenir table (everything given the colorful "Guys and Dolls" logo), a florist shop worth of flowers and lots of volunteer parents. But I have to report that there was no coffee! (OK, "It stains the carpet," I was reasonably informed.)
Liza Seiner's and Donita Sanders' costumes are varied, colorful and numerous beyond count. There's no chance you'll lose focus on the four leads, since they're costumed in electric primary colors -- blues for gambler Nathan Detroit and Hot Box singer Miss Adelaide, reds for gambler Sky Masterson and Sarah Brown of the Save-a-Soul Salvation Army Mission.
The first weekend they were played respectively by Jarrett Reiche, Maddie Nick, Daniel Forringer and Erica Holleran. Another quartet takes over the second weekend. Among those I saw, Sarah showed the best voice, Sky the most charm, Adelaide the best comic touch and Nathan the clearest acting ability.
But the stand-out performance is by Matt Fawcett as Nicely-Nicely, a rotund vision in yellow -- from the moment he opens his mouth you know he's perfectly wedded to his role. Also making an impression is Eric Phelps as Sarah's grandfather, Arvide, who sings the sweet "More I Cannot Wish You."
Ah, the songs. Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows' book (based on Damon Runyon stories) is fine, but Frank Loesser's music and lyrics are triumphant. To the songs I've already mentioned, add "Adelaide's Lament," "Guys and Dolls," "If I Were a Bell" and "I've Never Been in Love Before." I floated out to the lobby to enjoy the post-show scrum of happy performers and families and friends.
"Guys and Dolls" plays at Penn-Trafford High School at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $8 to $10. Visit www.pthsdramaguild.com. For a complete list of high school musicals, visit www.post-gazette.com.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.