By Gwen Rice, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Sep 24, 2017 at 3:16 PM

Milwaukee Rep artistic director Mark Clements has established an exuberant tradition in his tenure over the past seven seasons: He has started the Rep’s performance calendar with a blockbuster musical, typically featuring big casts, nationally-known talent and production values for miles. Although I missed last year’s much-acclaimed "Man of La Mancha," I did catch both season openers "Dreamgirls" and "Ragtime" – both of which absolutely took my breath away.

So I was excited to see what Clements and the Rep team would do with the classic, well-made musical "Guys and Dolls," a show with memorable songs and a long history of charming audiences with its signature Damon Runyon patter and mobsters with hearts of gold.

In the back of my mind, I also worried that perhaps this chestnut – which debuted in 1950 – would not age well. But with Clements himself assuring potential audiences that this would be a frothy, feel-good evening full of "sheer joy," I settled into my seat, ready to be swept away in escapist fun.

And there is some fun to be had in the Broadway fairy tale, featuring colorful characters that inhabit a clean and quaint, mid-century New York City with a vocabulary all their own. Basically, "the heat is on" (the police are cracking down) but everyone is "looking for some action" (illegal gambling), particularly those who’ve got "plenty of potatoes" (lots of cash).

But while looking out for the latest location of an infamous floating crap game, the guys would do well to steer clear of "dolls" (women). These "tomatoes" (see previous) will quickly end their freedom, their fun and their livelihood as professional mobsters. As two of the clean-cut criminals croon in the title song, love is clearly the culprit when "a bum is under the thumb of some little broad" (no translation necessary).

Trying not to cringe.

From the four distinguished leads, to the chorus people who play many different bit parts, the cast shines in their musical numbers. The comically repressed "mission doll" Sister Sarah (Emma Rose Brooks) has a thin, trilly soprano that easily scales the heights of "I’ll Know" and "I’ve Never Been in Love Before." As the Hot Box performer Adelaide, Kelly Faukner lends her strong, brassy voice to both her comic vaudeville numbers and her beleaguered pleas to her fiancé, Nathan Detroit, to finally marry her after a 14-year engagement.

The smooth and suddenly smitten gambler Sky Masterson (Nicholas Rodriguez) shows off his rich, almost operatic baritone in the gorgeous "My Time of Day," and he, along with an impressive collection of fellow gamblers, absolutely nails "Luck Be a Lady," with a welcome intensity that was missing from the rest of his performance.

And Michael J. Farina’s Nicely-Nicely Johnson earned an extended round of applause on opening night for leading the ensemble in "Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat." In this rollicking number, even the stern General Cartwright (Virginia Ann Woodruff) lets loose with an impressive gospel riff while joining in the testifying atop the desk in the Save A Soul Mission. David Hess also gets props for a touching rendition of Arvide Abernathy’s under-appreciated love song "More I Cannot Wish You."

And then Adelaide and Sarah realize that they can each end their romantic suffering by forcing Nathan and Sky to change after the honeymoon is over, singing "Marry the Man Today."

I tried very hard not to cringe.

The only thing better than the music in this production is the dancing, which is extensive. Led by several highly trained performers who bring balletic touches to Stephen Mear’s dazzlingly energetic and inventive choreography, the rest of the cast keeps up with routines that are incredibly well executed.

The dancers’ sultry Latin moves in the nightclub scene in Havana were especially impressive. How could Sarah not be seduced by this exotic date with Sky? Especially when he’s slipping her multiple umbrella drinks filled with Bacardi after she asked for a milkshake?

Cringing a little bit now.

The thing that has always really redeemed this show for me is the sweet and unlikely romance between Sky and Sarah, and Adelaide and Nathan. And as the gambler who must convince his bible-thumping quarry to join him for dinner in order to win a bet, Sky explains that true love frequently depends on "chemistry."

But the dated script is not to blame for the lack of electricity between either of the couples. Both pairs go through the motions, but lack the onstage chemistry for any convincing connection.

And that is truly cringe-worthy.