(Almost) “Anything Goes”

By Brooks Appelbaum -- special to the Shoreline Times

Under the direction of Daniel Goldstein at Goodspeed Musicals, Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” (running through June 16th) is true to its title -- and then some. At times, this broader-than-broad interpretation yields some delightfully funny moments, a few sprightly dance numbers, several performances that are pleasingly goofy, and one -- David Harris as the handsome leading man, Billy -- that is genuinely touching. However, the overall feeling is that of a lurid 21st century rendition, rather than an opportunity to revisit Porter’s fizzy, insouciant fun.

The original book, by Guy Bolton, P.G. Wodehouse, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, and updated by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman, was written at a time in the early 1930’s when audiences craved both comical escapism and visions of wealth and celebrity to distract them from the economic crash of 1929. One might argue that our situation is disturbingly similar, however, the best way to play a period comedy is to go straight to the period and to allow audience members to discover the parallels for themselves. Here, Porter’s fabulous lyrics and music are all but lost in director Goldstein’s louder, faster, funnier pell-mell pace.

The plot certainly bubbles with farce, slapstick, mistaken identities, and star-crossed love -- all taking place on a luxury liner traveling from America to England. Billy stows away on the ship to pursue his true love Hope (Hannah Florence), but Hope’s mother (Denise Lute) insists that her daughter marry Lord Evelyn (a hilarious Benjamin Howes) to revive their wilting prospects. Meanwhile, Moonface Martin, Public Enemy #13 (an over-the-top Stephen DeRosa) has found his way onboard with his sidekick, Erma (a delightful Desiree Davar), and must immediately disguise himself as a priest. Wall Street banker, Whitney, is wonderfully played by Kingsley Leggs, as is the ship’s captain (Jay Aubrey Jones) and The Purser (Patrick Richwood).

And this brings us to Reno Sweeney (Rashidra Scott), the star of the show. Reno was once an evangelist, but she has turned her performing charisma into a hugely successful nightclub act. Scott certainly has the pipes for the role (the original Reno was Ethel Merman, and subsequent productions have featured Patti LuPone and, most recently, Sutton Foster). However, she lacks the heart. And yes, in all the comic mayhem, Reno must have a heart. We hear it almost breaking at the top of the show when she realizes that Billy, whom she loves, will never return her feelings (“I Get A Kick Out of You”). Yet Reno is the kind of good sport who not only bucks up Billy when he despairs of getting his girl (“You’re the Top”), but throughout the show does everything in her power to see her friend happily married to Hope.

Scott, though, as directed by Goldstein, plays Reno almost entirely for comedy. Every now and then, some sweetness peeks out, but her overall lack of genuine warmth sinks the show’s delicious, delightful, de-lovely quality -- the very quality that sets it apart from other such absurdly silly titles of the time.

The ensemble dancers are, as always in a Goodspeed musical, terrific, but in most cases, Kelli Barclay’s choreography and Ilona Somogyi’s costumes distract from, rather than serve, Porter’s marvelous songs. This is especially true for “Anything Goes,” and “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” which is presented as a quasi-strip number rather than a nightclub act circa the early 1930’s. One longs for the classy style of Fred Astaire and Busby Berkeley, all the more so to balance the whisper-thin plot.

Fortunately, the set, designed by Wilson Chin, whose lovely work recently graced Long Wharf Theatre’s production of Samuel D. Hunter’s “Lewiston,” provides a beautiful and ingenious backdrop for the action. In an unusual departure, the orchestra sits on a platform above the stage so that the stage itself, now deeper, covers what is usually the orchestra pit. The ship’s deck is gleaming white, with stairs going to the lido deck on either side, and the set changes on board are seamless.

Despite the director’s missteps, Porter’s music almost triumphs. However, by losing the opportunity to infuse “Anything Goes” with period style and human warmth, Goldstein also loses the opportunity to provide the best kind of escapism.

“Anything Goes” runs through June 16th. For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit: www.goodspeed.org

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