By John Staton
Of course, we probably wouldn’t care much about “Anything Goes” in 2010 if the songs hadn’t been written by the great Cole Porter. And it’s ultimately the songs, from the smooth and velvety melody of “It’s Delovley” to Kendra Goehring-Garrett’s soulful belting of the title tune, that we take away. It’s certainly not the silly and somewhat formulaic story line, even if it does make some satiric social commentary.
To dispatch with that story line before we get into the good stuff: An ocean liner is making the Atlantic crossing from New York to London, quite an event in its day, but one that lacks cache to the snobby Mrs. Harcourt (Michelle Reiff, perfect). She expects to see some celebrities, and not just the nightclub singer Reno Sweeney (Goehring-Garrett), whom she dismisses as merely “notorious.” Mrs. Harcourt’s with her daughter, the sweet if not entirely innocent Hope, played with a sort of endearing blandness by Dorothy Cowan. Hope is engaged to the insufferable British fancy-pants Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Zack Simcoe), who even sniffs at an illuminated moon. (“It’s all right, for what it is”).
But things are about to get more interesting. Billy Crocker (Jason Aycock, likable and steady, as always) is there to see off his boss, the rich, feckless Elisha J. Whitney (Eric Paisley, his comic timing making him a well-deserved crowd fave). Billy had an enchanted evening some weeks back with Hope, so when he runs into her again he decides to stay on the boat despite his lack of ticket or passport, not to mention her impending nuptials.
Also illicitly on board are the gangster Moonface Martin (Dan Morris) and his loud but resourceful moll, Bonnie (Heather Setzler). Over the course of the evening, as Billy tries to hide from/blend in with the ship’s crew he gets mixed up with the gangsters and is later mistaken for their leader, while Reno develops a thing for the uppity Evelyn.
In the style of the day, the songs are only very loosely tied to the story line, but that helps keep things light. One of the big production numbers, “The Heaven Hop,” led by a wonderfully wacked-out Setzler and backed by Reno’s “Angels,” who ain’t exactly purity and light, is a feather-light confection of fun. Another big number, the catchy “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” is rousing and riveting, and speaks more directly to the show’s underlying theme of saints behaving like sinners and vice versa.
Given the religious undertones, which the show plays for laughs while holding up piety for the hypocrisy it often is, it’s instructive that the Act Two-opening “Public Enemy Number One” is done gospel-style. When the passengers and crew think Billy is a gangster named Snake Eyes Johnson (Snake Eyes Johnson!) it’s he whom they really worship.
Elsewhere, Porter, as he’s wont to do, jabs a thumb in the eye of conventionality with mischievous odes to breaking the rules, including “Let’s Step Out” (led, once again, by the effervescent Setzler) and “Let’s Misbehave,” delivered duet-style by Goehring-Garrett and Simcoe. And while they perform well individually and make a good comic team, with Goehring-Garrett playing Reno as a smoldering if somewhat nurturing sexpot, and Simcoe going ever-so-slightly over the top as the clueless English Evelyn, it would’ve been nice to see a bit more romantic chemistry (admittedly hard to conjure with Evelyn written as such a nincompoop).
Likewise, Aycock and Cowan don’t exactly make sparks fly either, even as they sing well individually. But it’s probably tough to get things going with another actress when your fiancée is right there with you on stage. (As announced in the program, Aycock and Setzler are engaged.)
Still, “Anything Goes” is rich enough in fine performances, legitimate laughs (much of the humor is corny, but a couple of moments are truly funny) and great songs that the romantic shortcomings don’t matter much. Morris in particular is a blast to watch as the meat-headed Moonface, and he adds some counter-intuitive panache to his big song, “Be Like the Bluebird” (make that “blue-boid”). Leading a mostly under-whelming chorus is the extraordinary Keith Welborn, adding humor to a couple of small roles and lending his lanky physicality to a number of dance sequences. (Chisholm choreographs as well, and while there’s an occasional energy to the dance numbers, they aren’t quite out of this world.)
Goehring-Garrett has a nice duet with Aycock in the song of superlatives “You’re the Top,” but she really nails her two big tunes, letting her extraordinary voice soar in the moody “I Get a Kick Out of You” and belting out “Anything Goes” with a controlled, emotional abandon.
It’s impossible to kill these songs, but musical director Lorene Walsh’s well-led band can sound a bit thin at times and could probably use a few more members (not likely in this economy). Likewise, The Scenic Asylum’s set is so basic as to be practically minimalist, another outcome that likely stems from a budget this side of blockbuster.
But no matter. For Chisholm and Opera House to come as close as they do to the glamour depicted in “Anything Goes” is an achievement in itself, not to mention that the performers generally capture the decadent, fun-loving spirit of the material.
It might not be 1935 anymore. But watching this show makes one occasionally wish (aside, perhaps, from some unfortunate Chinese stereotypes) that it still was.