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What happens when a regional theater goes fishing for talent outside its own pool

Seattle is one of the nation's best theater towns. The Bagley Wright Theatre, which the Seattle Repertory Theatre opened to enthusiastic reviews two seasons ago, is one of the best places in America to see a show. And the Seattle Rep itself, now 22 years old, is unquestionably one of the leading regional theaters. Superficially, the Seattle Rep's current production, ``Guys and Dolls,'' seems worthy of the city, the building, and the company. It is visually spectacular, musically scintillating, and crisply directed by Paul Giovanni. The entire production is as bold, bright, and subtle as a Sunday cartoon strip.

Given all that, there is an unfortunate aspect to the production. A great many of the characters inhabiting Giovanni's candy-colored world are pallidly acted. The performances are competent, but, as the gambler Sky Masterson might have put it, these are people who do not have any chemistry. This is what happens when any assembly of strangers, many cast out of town, are introduced at the first rehearsal.

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And it happens all too often with regional theater. The Seattle Rep, located in the midst of an abundant talent pool, made the disappointing decision to cast largely from New York auditions. To get the right Hamlet or Lear, sometimes a director has to go out of town. That just isn't necessary to fill the delightful but two-dimensional role in the Jo Swerling-Abe Burrows script. [Seattle Rep producing director Peter Donnelly counters, ``That's not true. For actors, yes; but great singers are not in abundance here. We auditioned over 300 people.'']

All the Seattle Rep got for its trouble is a roomful of competent professionals with no connection whatsoever to Seattle or each other.

This is all the more unfortunate, in that the overall design and technical execution of this ``Guys and Dolls'' would stand out anywhere. Kate Edmunds's fluidly functional set, Kurt Wilhelm's entertaining late-'30s costumes, and Dawn Chiang's dramatic lighting effects and crisp blackouts are all highly effective in creating the broad-brushed ambiance that goes with Mr. Giovanni's comic-book sensibility.

His approach works very well for this tale of gamblers, gangsters, and showgirls. He clearly establishes a world of pure theatricality that does not extend beyond the final curtain; this is a low-life fantasy, as insouciantly amoral as an alley cat. Mr. Giovanni has gone back to the Damon Runyon stories from which the book for the musical was drawn, and he uses Runyon's sardonic humor as a frame around the show's musical-comedy clich'es. After all, ``Guys and Dolls'' features a sordid set of characters; a genuinely sentimental production would glorify some rather unsavory behavior.

As gambler Sky Masterson and Salvation Army sergeant Sarah Brown, veteran performers Davis Gaines and Regina O'Malley trill the Frank Loesser score nicely. But they are less competent at creating characters. As a result the production has an operatic, drop-everything-else-while-hitting-the-high-notes quality. It would be hard to fault the casting of Faith Prince as Adelaide, the showgirl who has been waiting 14 years for a wedding ring -- she's a scream in every scene. But some of the others -- Sal Mistretta (Nathan Detroit), Jerry Coyle (Nicely-Nicely Johnson), Jeffrey Dreisbach (Big Jewel), and Yusef Bulos (Arvide Abernathy) -- bring nothing individually to the show that couldn't have been found in Seattle. And collectively they lack spark.

Seattle Rep is not alone in casting its shows out of town rather than shopping around locally. Many regional theaters do the same thing, and often with considerably less appealing results. Twenty years ago, when most regional theaters were new and somewhat shaky, local actors were in short supply, and theaters were anxious to establish their legitimacy. We're long past that point now -- there are plenty of professional actors outside New York, and the regional theater movement has become a creative force in its own right. Theaters as impressive as Seattle Rep can afford to -- need to -- develop a bit more confidence in their regions.

Meanwhile, grousing aside, this ``Guys and Dolls'' is a diverting spectacle, running through May 26.

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