Friday, May 31, 2013

Pleasure cruise

Photo Credit: © Joan Marcus, 2012
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What: Anything Goes
Where: The Fox Theatre, St. Louis
When: May 28-June 9, 2013

Cole Porter’s 1934 hit Anything Goes has undergone three major revivals, each one of which involved significant alternations in the script and score. The latest, produced for New York’s Roundabout Theatre in 2011, is the version playing the Fox right now, and it’s a winner.

The new book is by John Weidman, whose credits include Sondheim’s Assassins and Pacific Overtures, and journalist and short-story writer Timothy Crouse—son of Russell Crouse, who co-authored the 1934 original. I’ve never seen that version, but I can say that this one crackles with funny dialog that although it sounds as if it could have been written nearly eighty years ago doesn’t seem dated, precious, or self-consciously ironic. It nicely showcases Porter’s brilliant score, gives all the major characters plenty of choice material, and includes just enough flashy production numbers to be satisfying, without succumbing to the “one number too many” disease that cripples so many recent musicals.

Photo Credit: © Joan Marcus, 2012
The basic story is unchanged from 1934. Stockbroker Billy Crocker, employed by cheerful lush Elisha Whitney, stows away on the SS American to be near his love, heiress Hope Harcourt, who is scheduled for an arranged marriage to the wealthy and foppish Lord Evelyn Oakleigh. Also on board are Billy’s friend Reno Sweeny, an evangelist turned nightclub singer; Moonface Martin, a.k.a. Public Enemy No. 13; and gangster moll Erma. They all get involved in schemes to spike the marriage and get Billy and Hope together, eventually resulting in a triple wedding and happy finale.

Although the role of Billy is effectively the romantic lead, it was originally written for a comic, William Gaxton, and much of that feel survives in this revival, with Billy assuming a variety of disguises and silly voices. Josh Franklin does well by the character’s comedy and is a strong singer and dancer as well. As Moonface Martin, Fred Applegate’s comic timing is impeccable. His big solo, “Be Like the Blue Bird,” was a highlight of the second act.

Rachel York’s larger than life, Texas Guinanesque approach to Reno Sweeney struck me as a bit over the top at first, but she quickly won me over with “I Get a Kick Out of You.” Her “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” was especially impressive, giving her a chance to make the most of her big Broadway “belter” voice. This is, after all, a role created by Ethel Merman; it requires a performer who can go big without becoming cartoonish, and Ms. York neatly fills the bill.

Photo Credit: © Joan Marcus, 2012
One of the big changes in this revival involves reassigning the song “Gypsy in Me”—in which the character reveals a secret “wild side”—from Hope to Lord Evelyn (Edward Staudenmayer), who sings it to Reno as part of a wild comic seduction scene. Mr. Staudenmayer‘s sudden transformation from feckless upper-class twit to out-of-control romantic was a lovely piece of physical acting. Joyce Chittick’s Erma was also nicely farcical, all brassy sex with an appropriately hokey Damon Runyon accent. Her “Buddie, Beware” was yet another second act standout.

As Hope, Alex Finke isn’t required to be much more than winsome, but she does it incredibly well, with a lovely voice and fluid dance moves. Dennis Kelly’s Elisha Whitney is the classic comic lush and Sandra Shipley shines in some very funny moments as Hope’s mother, the object of Whitney’s often-thwarted lust.

In many ways the real stars of this production, though, are the members of the chorus as they sing and dance up a storm in “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” and in the big production numbers that close both acts. The spectacular "Anything Goes” tap sequence at the end of the first act is particularly impressive, with the company spread out on all three levels of the set. Check out the promotional video at the tour web site to see what I mean. Yes, the solid work by all the principal and supporting players is essential, but this Anything Goes wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining without the precision work of the “gypsies” in the chorus. Here’s to them.

Here’s to the band under Jay Alger as well. The show travels with a synth and percussion, but the other thirteen members are recruited locally, and they sounded very together on opening night despite what must have been a short rehearsal period.

Derek McLane’s colorful multi-level ocean liner set adds its share of style to the proceedings, as do Martin Pakledinaz’s attractive costumes. Kathleen Marshall’s direction and choreography couldn’t be better, and she seems to have taken particular care to insure that not much action is pushed to the extreme sides of the set, where it could be blocked by the false proscenium required in large houses like the Fox—not every tour I’ve seen there has taken that into account.

There were a few ragged spots on opening night, including a small “wardrobe malfunction” for Mr. Franklin (a suspender that wouldn’t stay put), but that’s minor stuff. This tour of Anything Goes is tremendously entertaining, briskly paced, good looking, and great sounding. If you enjoy classic musicals, you won’t want to miss it. For more information:

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