Even if you get no kick from champagne, you’ll certainly get one from Goodspeed Musicals’ new production of “Anything Goes,” which opened at their flagship Opera House in East Haddam on Wednesday, April 27, from the very first moment that Cole Porter’s transporting music and witty lyrics fill the tidy, compact theater.
Director Daniel Goldstein, who breathed new creative life into the Broadway revival of “Godspell” in 2011 and made Goodspeed’s productions of “Hello, Dolly,” and “Damn Yankees” feel both fresh and exciting, achieves similar results here. Though the musical originally opened on Broadway in 1934, Goldstein’s production proves that “Anything Goes” has not lost any of its effervescence and can charm an audience in 2016 just as it did for depression-ravaged audiences seeking an escape from their troubles back in the ‘30’s. Taking place aboard the S.S. American, a liner crossing from New York to England, the ebullient show was an easy way to provide a hint of luxury and class, particularly for those heavily impacted by the economic situation.
While this production moves swimmingly along, the number of writers credited with the show’s book belies the fact that it was all smooth-sailing. P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton’s original book was significantly enhanced by the then nascent writing team of Howard Lindsay (who also directed) and Russell Crouch prior to its premiere. A generation later, Crouch’s son Timothy and veteran book writer John Weidman reworked the book for a Lincoln Center revival that showcased more of the show’s musical numbers, including “I Get A Kick Out of You,” “You’re The Top,” “Blow Gabriel Blow,” “It’s De-Lovely,” and of course the title tune, which by then had become popular standards of the Great American Songbook.
Needless to say, it’s a perfect show for Goodspeed audiences and Goldstein and set designer Wilson Chin prove that it’s also a perfect fit for the Goodspeed stage. Although Goldstein has deep-sixed the overture for a cold opening set in a Manhattan bar, the curtain rises for the second scene on a nimble, two-tiered ocean liner deck, with a seven piece orchestra set in front of the smokestack on the top level, with two curving staircases leading to the deck below which now extends out over what has traditionally been the orchestra pit. This gives a theatrically modern feel to the production, as more and more Broadway productions find the orchestra located visibly on the stage.
With the leading role of showgirl-evangelist Reno Sweeney written originally for Ethel Merman (and played in two subsequent Broadway productions by Patti LuPone and Sutton Foster), you can’t have a successful production of “Anything Goes” without a great Reno, and lightning has struck along the Connecticut River with the casting of Rashidra Scott, who readily captures the energy, brashness and confidence of Reno, along with a vocal range that easily handles Porter’s score and fancy footwork that allows her to tap step for step along with the production’s chorus boys and girls.
And tap they do—so this might be a good time to bring up choreographer Kelli Barclay, who has created one delightfully giddy tap routine to close the first act that at one point does away with the music entirely, having Reno and the dancers rely on their own coordinated rhythm to sustain their hectic pace. Barclay also finds a way for the entire cast to jump on chairs and lean backwards over tables as they all get caught up in the Gospel frenzy of “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” led by Scott’s powerhouse Reno and her four showgirl-angels. And in the late Act II number, “Buddy Beware,” Barclay allows cast member, the dizzyingly delightful gangster’s moll wannabe Desiree Davar as Erma, to cavort cleverly with a cadre of over eager sailors each vying for her attention.
Like Scott and Davar, other principals surprise and impress with the extent of their dancing abilities, including leading man David Harris as junior Wall Street broker Billy Crocker and Hannah Florence as heiress Hope Harcourt, who’ve fallen in love even though Hope is set to marry into English royalty. They manage some elegant flourishes up and down the stairs and across the stage in “Easy to Love” and the bittersweet “All Through the Night” which feature Florence flying off into unexpected spins from Harris’s arms.
Harris makes for a charming, determined hero, who gets to play around with his character who because he’s a stowaway aboard the liner, is forced to disguise himself first as a too-tall sailor and later as Public Enemy Number #1, Snake Eyes Johnson, complete with the hardcore accent and flashy gangster moves. Florence endows Hope with welcome grit and determination, torn between fulfilling her family’s desires and her love for Billy, while equally unwilling to put up with some of Billy’s nonsense as he relishes his new role as the official on board celebrity, subject to fawning adoration from the young women passengers.
“Anything Goes” might also sum up, in a way, Goldstein’s approach to mining the humor in the musical. He relies on the versatile Stephen DeRosa for much of that, affording him plentiful opportunities to engage in slapstick behavior or utter punch lines in any number of languages in his role as Moonface Martin, the luckless Public Enemy #13. DeRosa enlivens any scene he happens to be in, even those in which Goldstein has him merely crossing the stage. As the evening progresses, DeRosa has the audience eating out of his hands, even when he engages in that currently audience-pleasing trope of trying to “unexpectedly” break up a fellow actor in the middle of a scene. I doubt if a director like Goldstein would really permit such unscripted behavior, particularly on opening night, just as director Alex Timbers certainly didn’t plan the spontaneous breaking up scene in the current off-Broadway revival of “The Robber Bridegroom” which remarkably happens every night.
Other comic highlights are provided by Benjamin Howes as the haplessly effete Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, the befuddled British industrialist that Hope is supposed to marry. Thanks to Howes, Evelyn is a comic figure hard to resist, as he delights in discovering American colloquialisms and tries to use them in sentences to rather amusing effect, or falling prey to Billy’s detailed descriptions of bizarre menu items designed to worsen Evelyn’s seasickness. Howes manages to project his character’s rather innocent delight in learning how to let loose and even discovering that he may have the luck to fall in love at first sight for the second time in his life.
As DeRosa pulls all the tricks of a classic second banana, he’s joined by the aforementioned Davar employs her best nasal twang as the smartly dim-witted moll, Erma, making goo-goo eyes at the sailors or at one point crawling over their prone bodies. Denise Lute has some great moments of haute attitude as Hope’s mother, Evangeline Harcourt, complete with her ever-present pomeranian, Cheeky, played by one of local animal trainer Bill Berloni’s rescues, Trixie (who gets her own substantial program profile). Kingsley Leggs can be appropriately pompous and authoritative as Billy’s boss, Elisha J. Whitney, the subject of much abuse from DeRosa once Whitney’s glasses go missing. Patrick Richwood also offers some valuable comic support as the tight-lipped, eye-rolling purser.
Having the two decks serve as the main set for the production serves the plot well, with bulwarks conveniently opening on either side of the stage to serve as staterooms and just the barest of elements to suggest other locations, such as the brig or the vessel’s nightclub. Designer Chin has left plenty of room for Barclay’s dancers, who really only number 10 in total, but with their frequent costume changes and assuming other parts (sailors, passengers, back up dancers), it seems like she’s been deploying an entire army all evening. Ilona Somogyi’s elegant costumes have that shimmering 30’s feel, whether they be evening gowns, formal tuxedos, compact showgirl costumes, officer outfits or those bright blue sailor suits that prove to be very flexible. Everyone is well lit by Brian Tovar who assures that the night scenes on the vacated decks can be as appropriately romantic as possible.
Of course, the limitations of the tiny Goodspeed stage keep this “Anything Goes” from being as splashy as the most recent Broadway revivals, but this production makes up for that in the vocal power and foot action of the cast and in the on-the-sport performances of each of the principals. And the three leads, Scott, Harris and DeRosa, assure that everything about the evening is nothing less than “De-Lovely.”
“Anything Goes” runs through June 18 at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam. An extra matinee performance has been added due to popular demand on Tuesday, June 7 at 2 p.m. For a complete schedule and to order tickets, contact the Goodspeed Box Office at 860.873.8668 or visit the theatre’s website at www.goodspeed.org.