"Charm incarnate" pretty well sums up the "Guys and Dolls" that opened last night at Arena Stage. The musical itself is a gem--arguably the jewel in the glittering crown of the American musical comedy--and when you get a production like this that does the material proud and then some, you've landed in theater nirvana.

Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows's 1950 musical is set in the 1930s as envisioned by the newspaperman and humorist Damon Runyon, the guy who invented comic gangsterspeak. We get characters with monikers like Harry the Horse. We get a heroine who performs at a classy joint called the Hot Box. We get a hero who runs "the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York." We get a plot in which, though the guys resist with all their might, the dolls get that wedding ring around their sweethearts' necks.

You want your classic numbers? You got your classic numbers. "Luck Be a Lady Tonight," "A Bushel and a Peck," "Sue Me," "More I Cannot Wish You." Under Charles Randolph-Wright's incandescent direction, the evening sometimes seems like nothing but one show-stopper after another.

As the crap game entrepreneur Nathan Detroit, Maurice Hines starts the show by pointing a finger and lighting up--pop, pop, pip--a series of neon signs (Hotel, Cocktails, Hats Blocked). Such electrical magic seems well within his reach. At 56, Hines no longer punishes himself by performing tap, but he still moves and dances like a dream. Dapper and lithe in his swell suits and snappy hat, this Nathan is a lowlife scamp with major, major style.

Nathan's sweetheart is showgirl Miss Adelaide (Alexandra Foucard), who is exhibiting signs of impatience as their engagement enters its 14th year. "I'm Adelaide," she introduces herself to one character, "the well-known fiancee." Oh sure, Nathan loves her. He promises to drape her in "more mink than a mink." But he's just not ready to tie the knot.

Nathan has other difficulties. He can't find a place to hold his crap game. And it must be held, because lunkish Big Julie (Richard L. Pelzman, looking like Orson Welles in a leopard-skin fedora) is in town from Chicago with money to lose.

Meanwhile . . . Nathan's pal the gambler Sky Masterson (Brian Sutherland) is in town. To get money to rent a venue for the game, Nathan bets him he can't get Salvation Army sergeant Sarah Brown (Diane Sutherland) to go with him to Havana. The confident Sky knows an easy win when he hears one, and soon he's romancing shy and moral Miss Brown, only to discover that, though he's known some dames, this "prayin' tomato" is something special.

As this giddy fairy tale whirls to its perfect conclusion, the characters gamble and smooch and dodge the cops and dance, dance, dance. Ken Roberson's choreography brings some sensual sizzle to the show. The chorus girls in their yellow-and-black-striped stockings don't just swing their hips, they stick out their saucy rear ends, and tender eyes should be shielded from what Miss Adelaide does with a mink coat. The men's dances are joyous explosions of movement. The only thing wrong with the choreography is that there should be more of it. Say about three weeks more.

Though a squeaky-voiced pixie when she delivers her off-kilter lines--"If it weren't so amusing, it might be funny!"--Foucard is a full-throated siren when she sings. Tripping daintily around the stage in one outlandish outfit after another, ultimately donning a lace pantsuit with matching hat for her Big Day, she's a ladylike moll. Far too couth to steal the show, she just walks away with it.

As if one pair of goofily sublime lovers weren't enough, the married-to-each-other Sutherlands are delightful as the gangster and the do-gooder who feud themselves into love. They play the comedy of their size difference (he's tall, she's tiny) for romance--gradually he bends to her, like a flower seeking a sun inexplicably placed below it. Their initial scrappy meeting, where they snipe while their hearts melt, has all the crackle of '30s romantic comedy, and they carry this charge through the show, a couple made for each other.

As if having the four leads cast to perfection weren't enough, the show is jammed with wonderful small performances, from old pro Terrence Currier's wise Arvide Abernathy to Carlos Lopez's spry Harry the Horse to Wayne W. Pretlow's Nicely-Nicely Johnson, who brings down the house with his prayer-meeting solo, "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat." Local actors Lawrence Redmond and Donna Migliaccio are blissfully present as the dim but game Benny Southstreet and the boogieing Salvation Army general. And if you watch the actors with next to no lines, you'll see that each one of them has his own little drama to deliver. Every corner of the production is alive and jumping.

The jazzily gorgeous production is the work of Thomas Lynch (sets), Michael Gilliam (lights) and Susan R. White (sound). Special mention must be made of Paul Tazewell's outlandishly fabulous costumes, which include a plethora of amazing suits (Harry the Horse is particularly resplendent in chocolate and cafe-au-lait stripes), gaudy spats, glitzy gowns and stylish chapeaus (one of these, sported by Adelaide, calls to mind Raymond Chandler's famous description of "a hat that was taken from its mother too young").

The limber, kinetic Hines is the show's major-domo and puckish presiding spirit. Hines is always dancing--he doesn't walk so much as slide and sidle into position. In this jumping, exuberant show, his personal style is smooth; he's the dry martini at the champagne blast. A hipster Nathan, Hines brings a jazzy cool to the show, a reminder, in the middle of the delightful Broadway tunes, of the earthy sources of American popular music.

Guys and Dolls, music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, book by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling. Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright. Musical direction, Danny Kosarin. With Lorna Ventura, Stephen F. Schmidt, Ryan Blanchard, Michael W. Howell, Rosa Evangelina Arredondo, P.J. Terranova, Bobby Pestka, Michael J. Bobbitt, Cathy Carey, Johanna Gerry, Bruce Lineberry, Liza Shaller, Jill Slyter, Gary E. Vincent. At Arena Stage through Feb. 20. Call 202-488-3300.