At the Music Theater Works
By Dan Zeff
Evanston-It was only a matter of time before the Music Theater Works revived Cole musical comedy classic “Anything Goes.” The show was a big hit when it opened on Broadway in 1934 and it drew large and appreciative audiences in New York City in somewhat altered forms in 1962, 1987, and 2011. For decades, regional theaters have seized on the show as sure-fire box office.
The Music Theater Works has given “Anything Goes” a bright and zesty revival that doesn’t conceal the shows soft spots, especially in the opening act. But the scintillating Cole Porter score heals all wounds.
“Anything Goes” is a model example of the successful Broadway musical of the 1930’s—a quality score embedded in a book of surpassing inanity. But for decades audiences have cut the book lots of slack in exchange for the opportunity enjoy a bushel of Porter icon numbers. The 1934 production starred a young Ethel Merman and Porter’s score is a virtual Merman song book—“Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” “You’re the Top,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and the title song. Then there are the hits “It’s De-lovely” and “Friendship,” which were added to the revivals, plus “Easy to Love,” and the hidden gem of the score, the sultry “All through the Night.”
The plot, such as it is, takes place on an ocean liner sailing from New York City to London. The central character is a brassy nightclub singer named Reno Sweeney who for unexplained reasons decides to become an evangelist. The most likely reason for the career change is allowing Reno and her sexy chorus of Angels the opportunity to blow the roof off the theater with the faux spiritual “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.”
Reno falls in love with young stockbroker Billy Crocker, but Billy loves ingénue Hope Harcourt, who is unhappily engaged to a silly-ass English aristocrat named Lord Evelyn Oakleigh. Adding a layer of senior citizen romance is Hope’s iron-will mother Evangeline Harcourt and Crocker’s curmudgeonly boss, Elisha Whitney. A saucy young thing named Emma weighs into the romantic frolics, taking on all male comers.
Heading the pure comedy of the evening is Moonface Martin, a hapless gangster masquerading as a clergyman. Moonface is fleeing the country and depressed by his disparaging FBI ranking as Public Enemy #13. Throughout the show, there is much low comedy confusion involving mistaken identities and the conventional lovers’ spats before everyone gets paired off, except for the freelancing Emma, in time for the big finale.
The book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse is saturated with corny jokes and silly sight gags, several of them actually funny, plus cartoon-deep characters and double en entendres that make the head spin. But the audiences of the time expected nothing more. The viewers did not anticipate Chekhovian realism and allowed the slapstick comedy to just wash over them, a good audience strategy while viewing the Music Theater Works revival.
The Music Theater Works staging is not done on the cheap. There are about 30 performers on the stage. The set consists primarily of the deck of the ocean liner, an efficient multi-level geometric backdrop designed by Kristen Martino. The production maintains its 1930’s ambience through the stylish period costumes designed by Alexa Weinzierl.
Erica Evans, a company veteran, stars as Reno Sweeney. Evans has the looks, the dancing chops, and the singing voice for the role. The performance could stand a more expansive brassy approach in the Merman tradition, but there was only one Merman. And Ethel never looked as sexy as Evans in an eye-popping backless halter top in the production numbers.
The other principals are well up to the mark. Ken Singleton is a good comic actor and displays his tenor voice to solid effect in “Easy to Love,” “It’s De-Lovely,” and “All Through the Night.” Lexis Danca has the radiant voice needed for the love-stressed Hope Harcourt. Brian Zane is an especially strong Moonface Martin, channeling the wise guy style of Klinger from “MASH.”
Against all odds, the scene stealer of the night is Maxwell DeTogre as Lord Evelyn Oakleigh. Normally I abominate such cornball vaudeville characters, and indeed initially I winced every time this addled brained Britisher appeared on stage. But then DeTogre delivers a solo dance (eventually joined by Evans) called “The Gypsy in Me” that was wondrously athletic and witty. The audience ovation paid tribute to a really delectable slice of virtuous dancing, presumable in coordination with choreographer Clayton Cross, who also created the splendid “Anything Goes” production number.
The supporting cast features Kayla Boyle as a round-heeled young gangster moll named Emma. Liz Norton is properly imposing as Hope’s starchy mother. Rick Rapp is Billy’s blustery boss, who accomplishes the rare feat of making a drunk actually funny on stage. For some reason, I was also struck by Rapp’s resemblance to Harry Carey.
The first act runs an excessive 90 minutes, but in the second act the dialogue is tighter and funnier and the singing and dancing more prominent. Rudy Hogenmiller couldn’t do much with the first act but his staging clicked on all cylinders after intermission. It has become a tradition to praise the large Music Theater Works orchestra but this time the unit outdoes itself, elevating from a large accompanying unit to a swing band well worth listening to on its own. Spectators are advised to be in their seats for the overture and the second act opening to enjoy swinging mini concerts of Cole Porter masterpieces led by conductor Roger L. Bingaman.
It seems like every review of a Music Theater Works production ends with a lament that it’s a shame so much professionalism and talent is available for runs of fewer than 10 performances. This revival deserves an extensive run befitting one of the great audience shows of the American musical theater. But we take what we can get. Notwithstanding the overlong first act and the numerous groaning attempts at low comedy, this is a high level slice of entertainment that revalidates Cole Porter as a master composer and brilliant lyricist whose like we don’t see anymore, or at least since Stephen Sondheim went into semiretirement.
The show gets a rating of
“Anything Goes” runs through August 26 at the Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson Street. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 2 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $34. Call 847 920 5360 or visit www.MusicTheaterWorks.com.
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