Todd Berkich isn’t rockin’ the boat.
When you play Nicely-Nicely Johnson in the national tour of “Guys & Dolls,” which shimmies into the Saroyan Theatre on Wednesday, March 4, for a two-night run, you get the chance to sing one of the show’s great songs: “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.” Because that song is so well-known for exploding into a trademark gospel-style frenzy of vocals, you don’t want to mess with it too much.
But Berkich still gets a chance to put his own mark on “Boat.”
He has listened to every recording he could of prior performers playing the role, and three interpretations stand out to him: Stubby Kaye, who played Nicely in the original 1950 Broadway production; Ken Page, who played the role in the 1976 Broadway revival; and Walter Bobbie, who got to tell everyone to sit down in the 1992 Broadway revival.
“I’ve actually taken very tiny moments from each of those performers as kind of an homage to them,” Berkich says. “So many people have gotten to do this role before that I respect and love.”
“Guys & Dolls,” of course, is a staple of community theaters. And is there any high school in the land that hasn’t rented Salvation Army-style uniforms and titillated audiences with the “Crapshooters Ballet”?
The musical, based on the short stories of Damon Runyon and with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, is known for its loveable gangsters, classic songs (“A Bushel and a Peck,” “If I Were a Bell,” “Luck Be a Lady”) and energetic dance numbers, it’s well-known to many theatergoers.
There are still first-timers, though, says Berkich.
“It depends on the city,” he says. “We’ve been to a lot of cities where there isn’t a lot of theater, and they’re seeing it for the first time.”
Berkich considers himself a character actor and singer, and his shows on tour and in regional theater include “A Christmas Carol,” “Lend Me A Tenor,” “Lombardi” and “Kiss Me, Kate!” He started rehearsals in December for “Guys & Dolls” in New York. He had never played Nicely professionally before, though he performed it in graduate school at West Virginia University.
“Musical comedy is really my forte,” he says. “This has always been on the bucket list of roles that I would love to do.”
He hopes he makes waves in the role — just not so many that he sinks the you-know-what.