Monday, September 12, 2011

Musicals in Revival: Anything Goes & How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Except for Kiss Me, Kate, no Cole Porter show has been revived as often as Anything Goes, the 1934 shipboard musical he wrote with P.G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Wodehouse and Bolton penned the original script, about a shipwreck; when the cruise ship the S.S. Morro Castle went down in a fire weeks before rehearsals were scheduled to start, marking the worst maritime disaster of the decade. Lindsay, who was also directing, and Crouse quickly refashioned the plot as a romantic farce about a young man who stows away on a ship to stop one of its passengers, the girl he loves, from marrying the man her mother has picked for her and through the device of a purloined passport ends up being mistaken for a celebrated gangster.

The book of the musical as it was finally produced is peerlessly silly, though every time it’s mounted afresh on Broadway someone is hired to tinker with it: the version that is currently intoxicating Manhattan audiences carries credits to Crouse’s son Timothy and Stephen Sondheim’s sometime collaborator John Weidman. Even the Porter score gets treated as a work in progress. All productions include “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” “All Through the Night” and the title tune, and since the sixties “It’s De-Lovely” from Red, Hot and Blue and “Friendship” from Du Barry Was a Lady are common bonuses. The 2011 edition adds “Easy to Love” (which Porter wrote for the film Born to Dance) and “Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye” (from an obscure British play called O Mistress Mine) while restoring the often excised “There’ll Always Be a Lady Fair,” “The Gypsy in Me” and “Buddie, Beware.”

Purists may whine, but it doesn’t seem to make much difference what tiny omissions and additions script doctors make to Anything Goes or how the Porter repertoire gets mined, as long as the shape of the original is retained and the mainstays of the score don’t go missing. After all, it’s not Fiddler on the Roof. The Porter songbook is rich in variety but the adjectives we might apply to one of his songs effervescent, brittle, madcap, flamboyantly witty would fit any of the others, and only Kiss Me, Kate (indisputably his finest score) is so intricately tied to a dramatic context that its songs can’t be slipped with impunity into other shows. That said, I think that the creative team behind the newest revival, headed by director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall and music supervisor-arranger Rob Fisher, has assembled the most pleasing combination of originals and interpolations yet. And it’s hard to imagine them being performed more delightfully.

Colin Donnell and Laura Osnes
In commercial terms the raison d’être of this Anything Goes is Sutton Foster, a musical-comedy star who can manage to be both elegant and raucous. Foster is an unusual case a gifted ingénue who’s too much of a powerhouse for standard ingénue roles. (Her role in The Drowsy Chaperone an uproarious parody of an ingénue was ideal for her mix of talents.) It’s a stretch to cast her as Reno Sweeney, the nightclub celebrity whose act, backed by a foursome known as the Angels, is a sexy musical version of a revival meeting. The part was written for Ethel Merman, so she doesn’t wind up with the hero, Billy Crocker (Colin Donnell), whom she lusts after but who treats her as a pal; he wins the blue blood, Hope Harcourt (Laura Osnes), while Reno lands Hope’s fiancé, the unflappable British peer, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Adam Godley) whom she wooed away from Hope as a favor to Billy. Unlike Merman, though, Foster doesn’t look a top banana, and since Reno is so much more fun than Hope, in this production you wait for Billy to wake up and realize he’s chasing after the wrong dame. (Osnes, who has a lovely soprano, does everything she can to rescue an irredeemably insipid role.) This puzzlement is a perfectly acceptable trade-off for getting to watch Foster dance and hear her sing “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top” (with Donnell), “Anything Goes” and “Blow, Gabriel. Blow.”

The cast of Anything Goes
Donnell, whose last Broadway credit was Jersey Boys, was new to me, and he manages the tricky demands of his role he has to be both straight man and clown without breaking a sweat. The whole ensemble is fine, including Jessica Stone as the girl friend of the real (absent) Public Enemy Number One and especially the cast’s gleeful veterans. Jessica Walter plays Hope’s mother and John McMartin is Elisha Whitney, Billy’s permanently inebriated stock-broker boss, whom he spends the entire cruise evading. These are 1930s Hollywood-stock-company roles, and you generally don’t take much notice of who plays them, but Walter and McMartin are hilarious. McMartin, who’s 81, is truly a marvel. In the televised Sondheim 80th birthday tribute, he sang “The Road You Didn’t Take,” which he’d introduced in Follies in 1971, and his performance of this troubling ballad of a man who won’t own up to the regret that’s eaten him alive was devastating at least as much so as I remembered thinking it forty years ago. In Anything Goes he plays at the other end of the spectrum pure farce and his technique is impeccable. The production’s other special treat is Joel Grey, still spry as he approaches 80, as Moonface Martin, the third-rate crook who’s supposed to be sharing quarters with Public Enemy Number One. This trio of performers (Walter is a mere 70) give the impression of having swindled time.

The show’s star is really Kathleen Marshall, who adds Anything Goes to a long list of triumphant revivals of classic musicals (of which I’d single out Kiss Me, Kate, Wonderful Town, and the City Center Encores! renditions of Babes in Arms and Bells Are Ringing). Marshall approaches a big musical number like “Anything Goes” (the first-act finale) or “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” as if it were a meal with multiple courses, layered and constantly surprising. And she provides liberal doses of superb tap dancing. The production is a bliss-out.

After Marshall and Susan Stroman, the director-choreographer whose work on Broadway musicals I most enjoy is Rob Ashford. His latest is the fiftieth anniversary revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying starring Daniel Radcliffe. Ashford’s shows perform well at the box office but he doesn’t get much respect. Last season he staged a stylish, tongue-in-cheek production of the 1968 Burt Bacharach-Hal David Promises, Promises that received mixed reviews.

I saw a nifty version of How to Succeed at the Goodspeed Opera House, home of musicals, in East Haddam, Connecticut in 2010 and initially didn’t feel the need to see another, but when Ben Brantley complained in The New York Times that Ashford’s had some of the same problems Brantley had noted in Promises, Promises, I put it on my schedule immediately, since I loved Promises, Promises. Brantley’s responses to musicals are often baffling; he doesn’t seem to understand how they work, and you always get the impression that he’s using the wrong search engine on them and then voicing his disappointment when his search comes up empty. Among other problems, he (and other New York reviewers) got the two leads in Promises, Promises backwards: it was Sean Hayes, as the hapless, compromised everyman hero, lending out his apartment to executives in search of a location for illicit trysts, who was miscast while Kristin Chenoweth as the object of his dreams, a secretary in his office whose dead-ended affair with their married boss (Tony Goldwyn) drives her to attempt suicide, was perfect. (If the plot sounds familiar, the source material is the 1960 Billy Wilder Oscar winner The Apartment, adapted by Neil Simon.) Hayes has a pleasant singing voice and a penchant for clownish high stepping; it’s easy to imagine him in a flibbertigibbet role like Charley in Where’s Charley? or as a fast talker like Harold Hill in The Music Man.  But he’s not convincing as an ordinary fellow, and if you saw Jerry Orbach in the original production Hayes’s rendition of “She Likes Basketball” felt by comparison like a guest spot on a variety show: who could believe that Sean Hayes ever fantasized about being a basketball player? Still, it was fun to watch him and Chenoweth together; their pleasure in each other’s company was obvious. And she was extraordinarily touching, while her touch on the Bacharach-David score was so light and so sure at the same time that the addition of two of their standards, “I Say a Little Prayer” and “A House Is Not a Home,” was gratifying. (You didn’t mind at all that the second of these made no sense in the context of the show.)

It’s logical that Ashford would be drawn to How to Succeed after Promises, Promises. Both involve immoral shenanigans in an office setting and both are quintessentially sixties shows, though the tone of How to Succeed is (lightly) satirical and its plot farcical. Ashford grooves on the synthetic visual style of the sixties and on the silly, infectious dance crazes, and his choreography takes advantage of both as in the lascivious-ironic “A Secretary Is Not a Toy” number, where one of the execs (Michael Park) lectures the others with projections and a pointer while the ensemble flies about Derek McLane’s ingenious set, a series of layered hexagonal spaces. How to Succeed is about an ambitious young window washer named J. Pierrepoint Finch (Ponty), played by Radcliffe, who uses a manual and his talents for flattery and insinuation to land a job at World Wide Wickets (WWW) and then to climb the corporate ladder, and Ashford finds exactly the right playful tone for numbers like “A Secretary Is Not a Toy” and “The Company Way” and “Coffee Break,” in which the office goes slightly berserk when the coffee machine runs out. At the Goodspeed, Kelli Barclay staged “Coffee Break” as a comic ballet of caffeine jitters; Ashford turns it into a lesson on how caffeine deprivation can turn civilized adults into desperate savages. (I assume that the popularity of Mad Men has made it possible for directors to present the lip-licking randy execs eyeing their shapely secretaries in “A Secretary Is Not a Toy” without having to worry that someone will sermonize about how sexist the musical is.)

Daniel Radcliffe and John Larroquette
When How to Succeed received its last Broadway revival in 1995, it was so overproduced that it barely seemed human, and Matthew Broderick had an icy comic efficiency as Ponty that bordered on the unpleasant. But if the book of the musical (by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert) allows for a soulless, conniving Finch, Frank Loesser’s songs redress the balance, and if Ponty isn’t a lovable conniver the romantic story line featuring him and secretary Rosemary Pilkington (a deft and affable Rose Hemingway) feels like an add-on. Robert Morse, who played Ponty on Broadway in 1961 and again in the entertaining 1967 movie, had a great deal of charm, and so does Radcliffe, though unlike the prodigiously gifted Morse, a speed-freak creation of the Broadway stage, Radcliffe’s comes largely from his modesty. He’s so game and self-effacing a performer that one might underestimate the ease with which this untrained singer-dancer carries a full-scale Broadway musical. Radcliffe plays Finch as so boyishly sweet that he catches you by surprise every time he scores a corporate hit and undermines his arch-enemy, the weaselly, entitled Bud Frump (Christopher J. Hanke), the boss’s nephew. Ponty’s big number is the second-act ballad “I Believe in You,” delivered to his own image in the mirror in the (men’s) executive washroom while the other execs hover jealously. It’s a song in praise of ego and ambition, but Radcliffe makes it about confidence bolstering, and the impulse to soften it feels right for this performer. He makes only one mistake, I think: he’s always so distracted in his scenes with Hemingway - clearly a comic choice - that when Ponty realizes at the end of the first act that he’s in love with Rosemary you’re not sure how he arrived at that conclusion. Radcliffe’s true partner in this production is John Larroquette as WWW’s boss, J.B. Biggley. Rudy Vallee, the original (and movie-verson) Biggley, was befuddled and ridiculous; Larroquette plays him as ulcerated and not even vaguely engaged in the affairs of his company, a combo that works just as well. He’s such a towering physical presence that his scenes with the diminutive Radcliffe have an almost bizarrely funny Mutt-and-Jeff quality, and some of Ashford’s choreography for their duet, “Grand Old Ivy,” spins off it.

The cast of How to Succeed
The supporting cast is strong, especially Rob Bartlett in the dual role of the mailroom supervisor Mr. Twimble and the aging CEO Wally Womper (Bartlett has some of the vaudevillian goofiness of Eddie Foy Jr. in the granddaddy of workplace musicals, The Pajama Game), Mary Faber (who plays Rosemary’s pal Smitty as a hard-boiled dame, a Helen Broderick or Aline McMahon type) and Ellen Harvey as Biggley’s secretary Miss Jones. (Harvey also recalls show-biz personalities from an earlier era: she’s a cross between Lauren Bacall and Betty Comden.) Tammy Blanchard doesn’t quite make Biggley’s mistress, the ditzy bombshell Hedy La Rue, work, though not from lack of trying and I think it’s the writing of the character that’s mainly at fault. My only other quibble is with the dresses in the “Paris Original” number, which are so atrocious that you can’t believe that Rosemary, who has some taste, would ever have bought one, let alone that (here’s the gag) every other woman at the office party would show up in the same outfit. (It’s the only wrong note in Catherine Zuber’s wardrobe.)

In Finishing the Hat, Stephen Sondheim praises Loesser, one of his favorite lyricists, for the cleverness of the ideas at the heart of songs like “I Believe in You” and “Make a Miracle” from Where’s Charley? I don’t think that How to Succeed is Loesser’s best score; Guys and Dolls and The Most Happy Fella and Where’s Charley? are more tuneful and more memorable. But if the music is second-rank Loesser (with the possible exception of “I Believe in You”), the lyrics aren’t, and the score has both an unfailing intelligence and a tonal and thematic unity that most Broadway songwriters can only envy. And I’ve never liked this show more than in Ashford’s production.

 – Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny ReviewThe Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.      

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