Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Tobias Young) and the cast of Olney Theatre Center's “Guys and Dolls.” (Stan Barouh/Stan Barouh)
Theater critic

By the time the Olney Theatre Center’s bright, lively new “Guys and Dolls” gets to the jubilant gospel knockoff “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” the night’s an easy winner. The musical numbers all add up.

That’s critical, because you’d give this show only a C in chemistry, the subject that the rakish gambler Sky Masterson says matters most as he flirts with the Salvation Army sergeant Sarah Brown. “Guys and Dolls” is as much fun when Damon Runyon’s gamblers and showgirls are talkin’ their squawky talk as when they’re singing Frank Loesser’s great songs, and the Runyonese was entertainingly adapted in 1950 by book writers Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows.

This production doesn’t get the adorable lowbrow formality of the chatter quite right, though. The spark between Matt Faucher’s Sky and Jessica Lauren Ball’s Sarah ignites only when they sing, and Paul Binotto seems more jangled and anxious than most Nathan Detroits.

End of quibbles, because the gangland speech in Jerry Whiddon’s big-hearted production is only off by the width of a cheesecake crust. The supporting groups are terrific — the streetwise guys angling for a big (and illegal) craps game and the chirping dolls flocking around Miss Adelaide and her act at the Hot Box Club. Frequent Olney leading lady Ball (“The Sound of Music,” “Cinderella”) gives her most confident performance yet as a radiantly moral, free-spirited Sarah. And heavens, can this cast sing.

Faucher brings a deep, masculine, romantic sound to “My Time of Day” and “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” pairing wonderfully with the sure soprano of Ball’s beaming but skeptical Sarah. Lauren Weinberg is a fetchingly plucky Adelaide, Nathan Detroit’s absurdly longtime fiancee, as she snifflingly renders “Adelaide’s Lament” and cavorts through the perky-sexy Hot Box routines. The show’s choral numbers have an infectiously lusty sound, from “The Oldest Established” (a hymn to a dice game) to the genuine showstopper that is “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.”

Nathan Detroit (Paul Binotto) and Miss Adelaide (Lauren Weinberg) in “Guys and Dolls.” (Stan Barouh/Stan Barouh)

This production dances well, too, as you hope it might the moment you see Dan Conway’s appealing set. The eight-piece orchestra is comfortably nestled back among cutouts of New York City’s skyline, and the rest of the big stage is left wide open so choreographer Michael Bobbitt can fill it with vintage Broadway-style dancing.

“The Crapshooters’ Dance” is a popcorn riot of leaping, twirling bodies, an adrenalized blend of raw athleticism and giddy fluidity. Even better is “Havana,” when Sky sweeps Sarah off to Cuba for a wild night that flips her romantic switch. Bobbitt collaborates seamlessly with fight choreographer Ben Cunis, a longtime veteran of the action-and-movement Synetic Theatre, so the cast’s alluring hip swivels somehow cascade into one of the best all-out brawls on stage this year.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Hot Box numbers find a sweet spot between cute and tacky that’s right in sync with the delightful Adelaide’s old-fashioned showgirl shtick.

All of that is to say that even with the spoken lingo sometimes falling a little shy of the mark, the show’s a ton of fun. Easy on the eyes? Check: Rosemary Pardee’s costumes avoid going over the top with the suits and dresses (surely a temptation); the cast looks sharp, not cartoonish. Easy on the ears? Absolutely: Music director Timothy Splain chooses the right eight instruments to get a solid brassy sound for this score, and they support the singers wonderfully.

Cast standouts include Tobias Young as a jolly Nicely-Nicely Johnson anchoring that rousing “Sit Down,” along with Cunis’s colorful Harry the Horse and Evan Casey’s winning wiseacre Benny Southstreet. Casey and Young sing the title tune with verve, flair and simplicity — a pair of cards merrily commenting on the tense state between men and women. The musical numbers here have that quality in spades.

Guys and Dolls Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows. Directed by Jerry Whiddon. Lights, Colin K. Bills; sound design, Jeffrey Dorfman. With Leo Erickson, Julia Klavans, Nurney, Andre Hinds, Amanda Kaplan, Ron Heneghan, Jocelyn Isaac, MaryLee Adams, Valerie Leonard, Richard Pelzman, David Landstrom, Ethan Kasnett and Tony Thomas. About 2 1/2 hours. Through Dec. 27 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd. Tickets $38-$75. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.
org
.