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Oakland Symphony rolls the dice with ‘Guys and Dolls’


The Broadway musical has spawned some of the great American music of the past century, but symphony orchestras — and the classical music world in general — is still often uncertain about how to handle it. Do you just plunk it right into the middle of your regular offerings? Shunt it off into the pops programming?

Michael Morgan and the Oakland Symphony have found an elegant middle ground to this conundrum in recent seasons by reserving one spot in their schedule for a big vocal or theatrical piece, under the rubric “American Masterworks.” Sometimes it’s a piece like “Follies” or “Street Scene,” but Morgan also has folded in harder-to-classify pieces such as Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass.”

On Friday, May 19, the orchestra concluded its season at the Paramount Theatre with a concert performance of a true Broadway landmark, Frank Loesser’s 1950 classic “Guys and Dolls.” It was clearly a labor of love, and Morgan’s musical leadership — committed, free-swinging and deeply engaged — brought out every bit of jazzy panache in the score.

And still, the piece sat uneasily on the orchestral stage. This is not its natural home, and Friday’s performance, which suffered from undercasting and acoustical imbalances, didn’t especially help it along.

“Guys and Dolls” actually fared best in the area it has most in common with the Symphony’s usual fare. The orchestral playing was top-notch throughout, vibrant and rhythmically alive, and the inventiveness of Loesser’s melodies — particularly the mixture of convention and unpredictability in something like the title number — made itself felt most clearly in the overture.

As if to put the case even more forcefully, the program was punctuated by three other instrumental offerings — the overtures to “Oklahoma!” and “Gypsy,” and the waltz from “Carousel” — led with wonderful gusto by associate conductor Bryan Nies. To listen to these pieces, with the orchestra firing on all cylinders, was to be struck anew by the wealth and tonal beauty of the Broadway repertoire.

As an encounter with “Guys and Dolls” itself, though, Friday’s performance often came through only in fits and starts. Morgan’s spoken interjections giving the gist of the plot were entertaining, but only served as reminders that the score is only one of several things that make “Guys and Dolls” work.

And orchestral music aside, the score didn’t always make its presence felt. Even heavily miked, many of the vocal performers sounded lost in the cavernous acoustics of the Paramount; Lynne Morrow’s Oakland Symphony Chorus produced a handsome, velvety sound in which few details registered clearly.

To this taste, the clear standout in the cast was Ben Jones, who played the high-rolling gambler Sky Masterson with a combination of tonal polish and expressive urgency. The Act 1 curtain number, the duet “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” between him and the Bible-thumping Sister Sarah Brown (a bright-toned Annie Sherman) was a high point.

Jack Wilkins was an oddly recessive presence as good old reliable Nathan Detroit, and Tami Dahbura built her performance as the lovelorn, germ-ridden Adelaide on a framework of bald-faced shtick. Joe Wicht amounted to luxury casting as Sarah’s grandfather Arvide — his tender, superbly shaped account of “More I Cannot Wish You” was a towering high point of the evening.

Joshua Kosman is The San Francisco Chronicle’s music critic. Email: jkosman@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @JoshuaKosman



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