I DON'T THINK IT'S HUMANLY POSSIBLE for a theater to completely fail with Guys and Dolls. Featuring a Frank Loesser score of untarnished gems and a boisterous book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, the show unfurls before you like the Grand Old Flag of musical comedy. Damon Runyon's story of bumbling gamblers and their dames is big, bright, and funny in a way that virtually defines what a Broadway show used to mean. The production on display now at the Fifth Avenue is Guys and Dolls, but it's a pallid representation of a fond memory.

The press release says that the direction by Steven Beckler "recreates" the staging from Jerry Zaks' celebrated Broadway revival, which is a euphemistic way of explaining why the whole thing seems so lifeless. It's certainly lovely to hear Loesser's songs again, and actually, everything is well sung (the dancers, too, are admirably game). Yet every number rolls by with a sameness that ends with an underwhelming orchestral flourish, and the feeling that you've missed something. By the time cynical Sky Masterston is wooing prim Sarah Brown with the gorgeous "I've Never Been in Love Before" to close Act I, you think, "And you're in love now?"

Following the given metronome, the performances fall into monotony. Nathan Detroit greets Sky with "You look great!" and he does look great--he's Gregory Harrison, who is even more handsome now than he was all those years ago on Trapper John, M.D. Trouble is, Harrison, though possessed of a fine, warm singing voice, has none of the edge or pizzazz required to sell the role; he's fresh, likeable, and not for one minute the right guy for the part. Matthew Arkin fares even worse as Nathan, playing him so benignly that his punch lines (these guys are supposed to tell J-O-K-E-S) float past you without any bite or memory of the preceding set-up. It's a flaw held by nearly every cast member; the swagger and wise-cracking which animates this style of comedy is apparently out of reach. Both Kim Lindsay as Sarah and Barbara Passolt as Nathan's long-suffering Adelaide have their moments (Lindsay loosens up when her character does), but even Passolt seems a beat behind in a can't-miss role. Only Jeff Asch as pint-sized hoodlum Harry the Horse and Ruth Williamson as a deceptively stern missionary seem to inhabit a world in which luck can casually be called a lady.

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