Monday, May 2, 2016

Anything Goes: Cole Porter at the Goodspeed

Desirée Davar (as Erma), and members of the Goodspeed cast, in Anything Goes. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

East Haddam, Connecticut’s fabled Goodspeed Opera House initiates its 2016 season with Anything Goes, Cole Porter’s breezy 1934 musical set aboard a cruise ship crossing the Atlantic. And though the Goodspeed voyage, under Daniel Goldstein’s direction, isn’t without its obstacles, overall it’s a pleasurable one. The libretto to Anything Goes was originally written by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse, though Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse revised it before the Broadway premiere, and over the years it’s been re-revised continually: every time it’s newly mounted in New York it’s tinkered with and the song list altered to add or substitute Porter jewels from other shows. Since the 1962 production (with Eileen Rodgers and Hal Linden), the 1987 production (with Patti LuPone and Howard McGillin) and Kathleen Marshall’s ebullient, deluxe 2011 production (with Sutton Foster and Colin Donnell) have all been recorded, Porter aficionados can check them against each other and evaluate the addenda and omissions. In terms of the libretto, there are three versions – the 1934, the 1962 (by Bolton himself) and the 1987 by Crouse’s son Timothy and John Weidman, which Kathleen Marshall hewed to and which Goodspeed has chosen to produce as well. (If you want to know what the show sounded like in 1934, get a copy of the 1989 EMI studio recording overseen by John McGlinn, who conducts the London Symphony Orchestra behind a disparate ensemble including opera diva Frederica Von Stade and the peerless Jack Gilford.)

The plot is farce. Billy Crocker, dismayed that the socialite he’s just fallen for, Hope Harcourt, is sailing to England with her pushy mother to marry an English lord named Evelyn Oakleigh, stows on board to try to prevent the wedding. In the midst of his efforts to avoid both the crew and his boss, Eli Whitney – who thinks he’s back in New York getting rid of some stock for him – Billy makes friends with a minor gangster known as Moonface Martin who’s supposed to be traveling with Public Enemy Number One, Snake Eyes Johnson, and Snake Eyes’ girl friend Erma. (In the 1934 version there’s no Erma; in the 1962 revival she’s called Bonnie and is the dance lead.) When Snake Eyes fails to show up, Billy impersonates Snake Eyes and becomes the main attraction on board the ship – to the delight of the celebrity-starved passengers and the relief of the captain, but to the dismay of Hope, who deplores his dishonesty. (This point is made more clearly in the 1962 script; Crouse Jr. and Weidman gloss over it but you get the idea anyway.) The female star of the musical isn’t the insipid ingénue Hope but the evangelist and nightclub singer Reno Sweeney – played in both the first Broadway production and the charming, forgotten 1936 movie by Ethel Merman – who’s pals with both Billy and Moonface but has a pronounced yen for the former. Conveniently for everyone, she ends up in Sir Evelyn’s arms. Getting this match to make sense – obviously it’s a matter of chemistry – is a challenge that even terrific productions like Marshall’s rarely meet, but the plot is so silly anyway that audiences aren’t likely to kick.

David Harris (left), Rashidra Scott, and Patrick Richwood in Anything Goes. (Photo: Mara Lavitt)

Goldstein is a trifle clumsy and over-emphatic in his farce staging; the choreographer, Kelli Barclay, keeps rescuing him in the numbers, which aren’t complicated but are executed with grace and style. (The eleven-member dance ensemble is admirable, especially the men.) The cast of principals is a mixed bag. On the plus side are Rashidra Scott as Reno, David Harris as Billy, Stephen DeRosa as Moonface, Benjamin Howes as Evelyn, Kingsley Leggis as Whitney and Patrick Richwood as the pixilated purser. DeRosa, whose vocal model was evidently Phil Silvers (a pretty good choice), stops just short of mugging. Harris is very efficient and comes close to making the tricky role of Billy – part hipster (sort of in the Sky Masterson category) and part clown – work. Bing Crosby played it on screen in 1936, and he was ideal for it, but aside from Bob Hope, it’s hard to imagine who else might have been. (Crosby is also in the misbegotten 1956 movie remake, which scuttles the original plot altogether.) Scott is the standout in the cast – she’s a true vocal stylist with a satiny contralto who wins over the audience in the opening scene with her rendition of “I Get a Kick Out of You” and then gets to perform “You’re the Top” (with Harris), “Friendship” (an interpolation from DuBarry Was a Lady, with DeRosa), “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” and the title song, the act one closer. This revision of the show cuts down the “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” number, which is a shame; it would have been nice to hear Scott on the extended version Eileen Rodgers sings with so much brio on the 1962 cast recording. Scott is the first African American I’ve seen in the role of Reno, and she made me think that it would be great idea to cast the wonderful big band singer Champian Fulton the next time around.

On the minus side are Hannah Florence as Hope, Jay Aubrey Jones as a dull Captain, and, trying too hard, Desirée Davar as Erma (though she dances well on “Buddie Beware”) and Denise Lute as Mrs. Harcourt. Florence has a lovely soprano and it’s only fair to add that Hope is a thankless role; still, Florence’s an unconvincing actress and her spoken diction lacks the discipline of her singing. (It also sounds distinctly twenty-first-century.)

Wilson Chin’s scenic design is both appealing and efficient, but Ilona Somogyi’s costumes are a patchwork collection. Some work fine, but the ones she’s created for the Angels, Reno’s back-up vocalists, are startlingly ugly, especially in the “Anything Goes” and “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” numbers. In “Anything Goes” this quartet is supposed to look topless, with anchors covering their nipples, but what they’re actually wearing are skin-tight flesh-colored tops that somehow manage to make them look simultaneously lewd (as opposed to sexy) and anatomically altered.

This version of Anything Goes retains both “Friendship” and “It’s De-Lovely” (from Red, Hot and Blue!) while restoring “There’ll Always Be a Lady Fair,” “The Gypsy in Me” and “Buddie Beware,” which were lost in the 1962 remounting. Its other interpolations are the wistful ballad “Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye” (from an unknown West End Porter show called O Mistress Mine) and “Easy to Love” (first sung by Jimmy Stewart, of all people, in the 1936 movie Born to Dance). This collection of songs is most satisfying, and whatever the Goodspeed show’s failings, it is too.

– 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 Review 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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