Dolls and Puppets

In tone, attitude and style, you cannot find two musicals more different than Guys and Dolls (Spreckels Performing Arts Center) and Avenue Q (Novato Theater Company).

The first features singing gangsters in a family-friendly trifle about luck and love set in Prohibition-era New York City, and the other puts potty-mouthed puppets alongside humans in a contemporary R-rated send-up of Sesame Street. Polar opposites, both shows offer plenty of visual invention, and each shines bright with sensational singing.

Directed by Gene Abravaya, Guys and Dolls is packed with colorful characters: the marriage-phobic Nathan Detroit (Tim Setzer), wealthy gambler Sky Masterson (Anthony Martinez), optimistic sidekicks Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Benny Southstreet (Ted Smith and Kyle Stoner).

The story is slight. As Detroit seeks a location for his illegal, nightly crap game, he avoids committing to his longtime fiancée Miss Adelaide (Denise Elia-Yen), simultaneously attempting to raise cash by betting Masterson that he can’t convince pious Salvation Army missionary Sister Sarah Brown (Stephanie Dietz) to have dinner with him in Cuba.

The tale’s effectiveness is dampened a tad by a lack of chemistry between the romantic leads, but still works on the strength of Frank Loesser’s delightfully off-kilter songs, snappy musical direction by Janis Wilson and a winsome cast and ensemble, with kudos to the engaging Clark Miller as Sarah’s understanding Uncle Arvide.

Rating (out of 5): ★★★½

Avenue Q is directed with obvious glee by Carl Jordan, with superb musical direction by Monica Norcia. The play blends sharp social commentary with outrageously crude puppet shenanigans, and offers a stunningly realistic view of life after college and on the fringes of society and success. Mary Nagler contributed the sensational puppets.

As unemployed idealist Princeton, Robert Nelson soars, and Amanda Morando breaks hearts as Kate Monster, the cuddly object of Princeton’s affections. Nicky (Seth Dahlgren) and Rod (Alexander Belmont) are Bert-and-Ernie-like roommates with a complicated relationship. Trekkie Monster (also Dahlgren) is a grouchy, porn-addicted recluse. Lucy the Slut (Melissa Claire) complicates everything.

The songs are infectious, and the entire cast rocks, energetically co-creating a show that is as fresh as it is hilarious, outrageous, and surprisingly moving.

Rating (out of 5): ★★★★