I HAVE ALL THESE STRANGERS HUGGING me," says Faith Prince, explaining how her portrayal of the giddy Miss Adelaide in the hit Guys and Dolls has made her Broadway's latest squeeze of the moment. "I get people who want to hug me when I come out of the theater because they feel like they know me. Sometimes I walk into restaurants and people say, 'Ooh, you made me feel so good!' "

Everyone, it seems, is gushing over Guys and Dolls. The revival of the classic 1950 musical-comedy hit, based on the stories of Damon Run-yon, is an old-fashioned, sentimental fantasy about New York City gangsters, their molls and the redemptive power of love. No one has been more dazzling than Prince as Adelaide, the ditzy Hot Box Revue dancer and hapless fiancé of gambler Nathan Detroit. "A bracing original," wrote demanding New York Times critic Frank Rich, while Newsweek's Jack Kroll raved about her "Judy Holliday stare and...voice like a trumpet with a Brooklyn accent. Adelaide is a career-making role, and Prince, 34, who is up for a Tony as Best Actress in a musical, is making the most of it.

"I knew the show was good, but I had no idea it would erupt like a volcano," she says, curled up in an armchair in her Manhattan apartment with her dachshund, BooBoo. Prince believes the show is a smash because "it says the basic things about men and women, love and a nostalgic past that's no longer there." And she's as smitten with Miss Adelaide as her audiences are. "I think she's a really strong lad. To hold out for 14 years for the love of her life was probably a very tough thing for her. That she wins in the end gives me hope I can get what I want."

Raised in Lynchburg, Va., Prince got hooked on acting in first grade when, dressed as Raggedy Ann in a school talent show, she read a poem. She learned a bit of showbiz from her now divorced parents, Keith, a nuclear physicist, and Tootie, a travel agent. "He's always been a joke teller, and she has a great laugh, which I use in my characters," says Prince. "I pooled from both of them." At the urging of a high school teacher, she enrolled at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. Alter graduating in 1979, she headed for New York City the following year.

Although Prince found steady work in regional theater and off-Broadway and appeared in an aborted TV sitcom, Suzie, with Suzanne Somers, none of her roles were quite the ticket. "I felt I'd been born 30 years too late because I'm one of those 'personality-humorous actresses,' and there were no vehicles for that," she says. Then in 1989 came Jerome Rabbins' Broadway, a medley of numbers from the famed choreographer's hit shows. As Tessie Tura, an aging stripper. Prince did a showstopping bump-and-grind from Gypsy. It was her first Broadway outing, and it won her a Tony nomination.

She was rehearsing for the shortlived musical Nick and Nora last fall when she tried out for Miss Adelaide. "Either a bell goes off or it doesn't," says director Jerry Zaks, who auditioned more than 150 actresses for the role. "With Faith, the bell went oil". Her talent is huge." Costar Nathan Lane also sings her praises. "She's the real turtle soup, not merely the mock," he says. "She sings the hell out of a song, plays a comedy scene for all it's worth and then breaks your heart.

Just before rehearsals for Guys and Dolls began last January, Prince married her longtime beau, trumpeter Larry Lunetta, 33, whom she spotted in the orchestra pit while doing On a Clear Day in Sacramento five years ago. "We went to lunch, and we've been together ever since," she says. "He's really been a great thing in my life." Says he: "I always gel a little chill up my spine when I watch Faith sing these songs from Guys and Dolls." The couple live in a small one-bedroom, spending leisurely breakfasts together and working at night. (Lunetta free-lances on Broadway and in jazz groups.) "I have a real nurturing side," says Prince, who loves to cook for friends and wants kids someday. "I'd probably be a great mother. But then I also have my career-side...."

It's that side that she's readying for the Tony Awards this Sunday. Though the buzz on Broadway is that she's a shoo-in, Prince is philosophical. "Sure it's something I want. But it's like the closer you come to realizing a dream, the easier it is to let go. It's going to happen or it's not." While she's hoping to branch out to TV and movies, she believes the important thing is that she keeps touching her audiences. "I'm in this business to be close to people—to make them laugh, to make them feel," says Prince. "I want that connection."

PAULA CHIN
TOBY KAHN in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Toby Kahn.