Two months back, Venture Theatre’s associate artistic director Brandon Burton gathered his 30 “Guys and Dolls” cast members and challenged them to set a new standard for Venture.

After months of uncertainty about the community theater’s future following the announcement in January that Venture was $130,000 in debt, the community stepped up to save Venture. In March, the board announced that $112,000 had been raised and that Venture will continue with its season after canceling the musical, “The Wild Party.”

When the curtains go up on “Guys and Dolls” Friday night, a new era begins for Venture. Finally, the emphasis is back where it should be – on the performance.

“This is getting back on the horse,” Burton said. “This is my mission that we set for Venture to make sure we let everyone know that this is a safe place for audiences to come and for actors to perform.”

“Guys and Dolls” was the show that sparked Burton’s interest in theater. As a teenager growing up in Fairfield, Ohio, Burton said he had never seen a theater production until his older brother came home one day and invited the family to see him perform as Vinnie in “Guys and Dolls.” It was a shock because the Burton family didn’t even know he got a part. One night of “Guys and Dolls” and Burton was hooked.

“I guess it was just the whole experience of theater that made me go ‘wow,’” Burton said. “There is something about the connection between an audience and the actors. ‘Guys and Dolls’ sated every guilty pleasure of mine. It has music that makes your feet tap, and the script is so funny, you’re laughing every 15 seconds.”

Burton said his male leads, Sam Herbert as Sky Masterson and Gus Bellota as Nathan Detroit, were fairly easy to pick. Herbert is debonair with a strong baritone voice and Bellota, with his usual beard shaved off, looks and acts like Nathan Lane who performed in the 1992 revival on Broadway. The ladies were harder to select because there were so many qualified actresses who auditioned, Burton said. In the end, he chose Chaslee Schweitzer as Sarah Brown and Keli Rhea Mitchell as Miss Adelaide. Angela Smedley will perform as Miss Adelaide on Saturday night. Schweitzer is reprising her role from eight years ago at Skyview High School when she played the evangelist trying to save the sinners of New York.

Set in New York in the 1940s, “Guys and Dolls” has gangsters, gamblers and dames all shuffling around Times Square with forays into Havana, Cuba, and even the sewers of New York. Lisa Atwood did an impressive job outfitting the guys in double-breasted pin stripes and fedoras and the ladies in 40s dresses and fishnets. Dance instructors from Diversity Dance – Lisa Oppegaard and Amantha Vandiviere – choreographed the dances, with help from Burton on the crap shooters dance.

“It reminds me of the cool number from ‘West Side Story’ or Michael Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal,’” Burton said.

Four members of the McCave family, including real-life Yellowstone County sheriff deputy Matt McCave, his daughter Cossette, father Dennis, and mother Marlene are involved in the Venture production. Matt brings authenticity to his role as the beat cop always out to the get the gamblers in “Guys and Dolls.” That’s how theater grows in Billings, first one member of the family comes in and then another until the whole crew is doing theater.

During the tech rehearsal Sunday, vocals were a highlight, even though it was the first night with the five-piece band led by Kathy McLain.

One-liners fly by, almost too fast to catch them all, and the gangster portrayals are so over-the-top, even the toughest of mobsters is comical.

It’s a silly romantic comedy, but for Venture, this production of “Guys and Dolls” is a chance to show the volunteers and donors that they didn’t waste their time or money on Venture Theatre.

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Entertainment Reporter

Jaci Webb covers entertainment for The Billings Gazette.