Monday, May 2, 2016

There's a Limit to "Anything"

"Anything Goes" -- Goodspeed Opera House -- Thru June 16

Rashidra Scott and cast members. All photos by Diane Sobolewski

If any proof was needed that vaudeville was one of the parents of the modern Broadway musical, all one has to do is travel to Goodspeed Opera House to see Anything Goes, Goodspeed Musicals’ first offering for the season. This Cole Porter classic -- with an original book by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse, with a major rewrite assist from Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse (of Sound of Music fame) and a later, updated (supposedly) rewrite by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman -- opened on Broadway in 1934, some nine years before Oklahoma would burst on the scene and change the American musical forever. This tuneful pastiche with a shaky (read silly) book seems to be showing its age under the direction of Daniel Goldstein and the at times less than animated choreography by Kelli Barclay. Given the median age of the Goodspeed audience, the shtick-filled two hours gets a lot of laughs and does has some dazzling and entertaining moments, but they are few and far between and ultimately Anything Goes, at least in this rendition, seems to sink under the weight of its years.

For those not familiar with the thin plot line, we have night club owner Reno Sweeney (Rashidra Scott) smitten with Billy Crocker (David Harris), an assistant to business mogul Eli Whitney (Kingsley Leggs), but Billy loves debutante Hope Harcourt (Hannah Florence), who, at the urgings of her money-conscious mother, Evangeline (Denise Lute) has become engaged to Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Benjamin Howes). For various reasons, all set sail for a trip across the pond on the S.S. American, whose captain (Jay Aubrey Jones) is desperate to find luminaries to spice up the crossing, even to the point of lauding a notorious criminal, Moonface Martin (Stephen DeRosa), as a substitute for Charlie Chaplin, who cancelled his booking. Of course, chaos ensues, with a lot of mistaken identities and rushing on and off stage and up and down ladders (all that’s missing to complete the farcical take is the slamming of doors).

The book is essentially a series of skits, many of which evoke vaudevillian set-ups that seem to require a lot of emoting, leering and playing to the audience (DeRosa is a past-master at this), with musical numbers often shoe-horned in. Yes, there are many wonderful Porter tunes (some not in the original version) that have become part of the Great American Songbook, and they are the saving grace of the production, but their often witty lyrics simply serve to emphasize the mundanity of the book.

Stephen DeRosa, Scott and David Harris

The lighter-than-air scenario requires that chemistry between the characters carry the show and, by and large, it’s just not there. Billy and Reno, in the opening scene, seem nothing more than casual friends, so the opening number, “I Get a Kick Out of You,” lacks any sensual undertone. They also get to sing one of Porter’s most famous songs, “You’re the Top,” but the number is hampered by somewhat stilted choreography and, again, a lack of chemistry – you just don’t believe the wonderfully witty words they are singing are meant for each other.

Oddly enough, it’s only when Reno and Moonface render another Porter classic, “Friendship,” that the production at last comes to life. Enforced choreography also seems to get in the way of Billy and Hope’s rendition of “It’s De-Lovely.” You just get the feeling that an arbitrary decision was made here: “Okay, we need to fill the stage with dancers in ballroom costumes, regardless of whether or not they distract from the song.” The problem here is that there’s just no visual build – it’s an intimate duet that just expands, for no apparent reason, into a production number in which the focal point – the two young lovers – gets lost. The dancers disappear and the scene just fizzles to a stop.

Hannah Florence and Harris

What does work is the closing number of the first act – “Anything Goes.” There’s really no logical reason for the number, but once Reno and “the boys and girls” start hoofing, you really don’t care – it’s what you’ve come to Goodspeed to see, as is the equally show-stopping “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.” What also works is the “Buddie, Beware” number late in the second act, if only because Desiree Davar has the blond gun moll role down pat. She’s got a lot of talent and doesn’t mind flaunting it.

Desiree Davar and cast

Set designer Wilson Chin, certainly with the agreement of Goldstein, has opted to open up the Goodspeed stage by setting the musicians atop the good ship S.S. American and extending the stage over the pit where the musicians would normally reside. After the opening scene set in a bar (which requires a lot of actors to open rear-house orchestra doors and enter from the aisles), this nautical construction is revealed (to applause) and establishes a verticality that ultimately becomes distracting, mainly because there is a lot of dead space between the stage and the ship’s “bridge,” which is connected to the stage proper by two curving staircases. Several numbers, including the iconic “Anything Goes,” and multiple scenes either begin or are played out high above the stage, giving the odd impression that the characters when perched high are somewhat god-like and are either romping around in Valhalla or deigning to descend to mingle with mere mortals.

The show has been extended through June 16, which means ticket sales are robust. As a showcase for some great Cole Porter songs, Anything Goes fits the bill, and if you’re into broad (very broad) comedy with just a touch of slapstick (some whipped cream does get thrown), the musical will be right up your alley. There will be a few who find the evening less than enchanting but their grumbles probably won’t be heard above the laughter and applause.

For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit:  

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