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IT'S ROUGH, IT'S FUNNY, IT'S A KICK

"Guys and Dolls" isn't a sentimental musical. Those lines we all love aren't lovey-dovey, or anything near it.

"I hate Nathan. Well, I still think I hate Nathan. But that's love."

"Go on, tell 'em what a bum you are."

"You're slowing up the action."

It's rough and it's funny and it's all a kick, the zoot suits and the gambling and the rum swilling. Especially when we're dealing with such an uptown "Guys and Dolls" as the one playing now at Shea's Performing Arts Center.

The production begins with a loud racing broadcast, complete with instructions not to use flash cameras, because they bother the horses. Then the orchestra blares the first notes and you think: This is like the old days of musicals.

Everything is spiffed up, sharpened up and jazzed up. The neon signs are brighter. Big Jule is bigger and wears a bigger fur coat. Nicely Nicely Johnson looks like Fats Waller -- and his tenor voice is higher than other Nicely Nicely Johnsons we might have heard. The Hot Box girls are goofier and the dancers' kicks are higher. (That's good, because this production has more dancing than I've ever seen.)

The sewer is the biggest sewer I've ever seen. You know, the sewer into which Nathan Detroit's floating crap game moves in the second act out of desperation. It's an imaginative, endless sewer that looks as if it comes out on Michigan Street. It's stunning in iridescent greens, blues and purples.

In other words, the stage is set for, as Nathan Detroit would say, some major action. The action is jazzed up, too.

That's partly because of this production's diversity. Nathan Detroit and his long suffering fiance, Adelaide, are black, played by the great Maurice Hines and Alexandra Foucard. Though Foucard keeps Adelaide the squeaky and slightly tawdry broad we're used to, the pair puts a slangy, Harlem spin on things. We got occasional interjections of "Work me, baby" and "I'm the man" that I'm pretty sure aren't in the book.

It all gives the show a spice it didn't have before. Meanwhile, Sky Masterson and Sarah Brown hold up their end of the production. They're played by a husband-and-wife team, Brian and Diane Sutherland. What voices these two have! Her "If I Were A Bell" was the sweetest and loopiest I'd ever seen, as Brown reels drunkenly around the stage. His "Luck Be A Lady" had a real electricity.

How would anyone find fault with this ultra-polished, ultra-professional production? I couldn't.

You wouldn't have time to, for one thing. You're kept too busy watching all the fun. Hines is a study in seething restlessness, in constant motion down to his fingertips. (Simply watch just his hands, and you'd never get bored.)

Hines spent a lot of his childhood dancing a sort of vaudeville act at the Apollo Theater, and you can see the old-time hoofer in him now. A fine line separates human beings from cartoon characters, and he walks that line, shaking and shimmying. He's fearless, his eyes bugging out and his mouth open in an "O" toward the audience. And he moves like liquid. He has a cartoon way of moving his legs so his knees are in and his calves are out. He can steal the show just by slinking offstage, his body contorted in odd positions.

Foucard is a tremendous foil for him. Any woman who belts lines like "I love you a bushel and a peck, a bushel and a peck and it beats me all to heck" has to have a certain presence, and she does. She has a cry like a fire siren. And those clothes she wears! In "Bushel and a Peck," she and the other Hot Box girls sport bumblebee-striped stockings. The next-to-final scene finds her dressed up in what looks like a clown outfit. It's not, of course, but it could be.

Speaking of the Hot Box girls, these are the funniest I've ever seen, and that includes all high school and summer school productions. Gulp that champagne fast at intermission, because you don't want to miss "Take Back Your Mink," which begins the second act.

Of course, it's all over too fast. The title tune, danced wryly by Nicely Nicely (Clent Bowers) and the very Irish-looking Benny Southstreet (Lawrence Redmond) is so funny and subtle, you wish it were twice as long. And Frank Loesser should have given "Sit Down, You're Rocking The Boat" an extra verse or two. He might have done so had he seen Bowers belt it out, jowls shaking.

The details are as comically polished and impeccably timed as in a Laurel and Hardy film. Even a minor moment like the one in which Nathan Detroit tries to set the crap game in Joey Biltmore's garage is hilarious. The two negotiate at the end of long telephone cords, sharing the spotlight. People on the periphery are marvelous, especially a long, lean blond who doubled as a tremendous dancer in the Cuban scene.

Want some action? Go on, take a gamble on this.

Just don't use any flash cameras, because they bother the horses.

e-mail: mkunz@buffnews.com

THEATER REVIEW

Guys and Dolls ***

Touring musical

Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, choreographed by Ken Roberson, starring Maurice Hines, Alexandra Foucard, Diane and Brian Sutherland.

Yhrough Sunday at Shea's Performing Arts Center.

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