Sunday, June 17, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 77, A Review: "Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" (Sharon Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

Cole Porter songs.
Vintage champagne.
A London-bound cruise ship.
Raucous frivolity.
Boatloads of sexual innuendo.
Tap-dancing sailors and chorines.
Golden age wit and nostalgia.
And, oh yes, a very happy ending.

Perfection, you ask?
Yes, indeed!

In "Anything Goes," the frothy, sumptuous Cole Porter musical that jump started Sharon Playhouse's dazzling new 2018 summer season, daffy comic shtick merrily abounds alongside delightful comic caricatures, confection-laced dialogue, frothy swagger, vamp and camp, mismatched lovers, leading man/leading lady charisma, splashy dance routines and a musical songbook in which every single number is gorgeously sung, acted and performed.

Everything about this production is right: Alan Wager's direction; Justin Boccitto's choreography; Ben Kiley's musical direction: Keith Schneider's elegant period costuming; Jason Myron Wright's swanky set design; Zach Pizza's candy-coated lighting; Paula Schaffer's 1930's freshly-minted hair designs; the lead performers; the supporting players; the lively ensemble; the Cole Porter music and lyrics; and the revised book by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman.

There is so much generated charm, passion and talent in this delectable revival, a one-time visit simply won't do. Buying a ticket or two to another showing is of the highest order as is advance reservations for the theater's upcoming productions of "All Shook Up," "Barefoot in the Park" and "Always...Patsy Cline."

That said, the plot for "Anything Goes" is ideally wrapped around a syrupy-sweet, high seas confection of love, passion and beguiling kookiness. There's glorious romance, celebrity gangsters, topical gayness, organizational mishaps, breezy set ups, champagne corkers and oozing nostalgia. There's also plenty of ripe, playful and acerbic commentary about social position and class, icebergs, sinking ships and safety drills, English society vs. American society, casual sex and innuendo, Chinese stereotypes, homosexuality, drugs and alcohol, arranged marriages, religion, brash business deals and swooning flirtations under the moonlight.

You laugh and laugh, always remembering that everything that happens or is said in this two-act musical is simply done in jest. This isn't 2018, a time when a barbed insult or prejudiced remark could get your TV series cancelled. It's the 1930s. Things were very different back then.
In short, "anything goes."

Musically, "Anything Goes" is the quintessential 1930s musical and rightly so. It contains the quintessential Cole Porter trunk of musical treasures: "You're the Top," "Anything Goes," "All Through the Night," "I Get a Kick Out of You," "Friendship," among others. Everything is tied seamlessly into the plot machinations without any hint of calculation. No one sings just to sing. No one dances just to dance. No one quips to just quip. Every musical number comes complete with frothy dialogue and intros that merrily signal each and every Cole Porter tune.

At Sharon Playhouse, musical direction is provided by Ben Kiley, a talented, deft musician who magically brings the popular "Anything Goes" score to life.  As the musical unfolds, Kiley emphasizes the playfulness and social jest of Porter's music and lyrics, its educated sprinkles and purple moods, matched with delicious helpings of mischief, melancholy, seasoned pathos, tangy usurps and sincerity.

Careful attention is also paid to Porter's lyrical brashness, its truths and magnificent wordplay, its compulsive, deft phrasing, its implied promiscuity, its chic insouciance, its pungent, distinct melodies and lastly, its sophisticated, swinging rhythms. With Kiley as auteur, the orchestra is in full swing and never once misses a beat or important song cue. And the entire cast (leads, supporting players, ensemble) deliver every one of the songs in perfect pitch and harmony as Mr. Porter intended.

In the directorial seat, Alan Wager is a stage great whose knowledge and understanding of the American stage musical has spinned the coin on one hit after another.  Here, his directorial choices for "Anything Goes" are thrilling, exciting, confident and transfixing to watch and unfold. Everything he does justifiably reflects the show's themes, plotlines, characters, jokes, shtick, corniness and musicality.

With the help of the entire Sharon Playhouse team, he keeps the musical firmly rooted in the period from whence it came. Every actor's move, every gesture, every position, every nuance, every mood, every zing, every dash is indicative of the 1930s. Elsewhere, he knows how to fully utilize the set design to full advantage, thus, moving the actors about on every playing level, from top to bottom, without unobtrusiveness. He also knows the period, the music, the nostalgia and the humor inside out and often gives his actors crafty bits of choice stagecraft which they toss off effortlessly. This, in turn, keeps "Anything Goes" in marvelous form. His directorial touch is so natural and so rewarding, nothing in this musical is ever questioned, out of place or out of sync for a single second. Well done, Mr. Wager.

Dancing is everything in a musical of this caliber and Justin Boccitto succeeds on every level. Like those around him, he makes the right choices in terms of style, mood, movement and dance tableaux. From high-charged numbers that include "Anything Goes" and "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" to the buoyant, simply-stated "You're the Top" and "It's De-Lovely," Boccitto brings a slick, distinct 1930s feel to the dances, matched by plenty of spirit, attitude, froth and glamour. It's ovation worthy stuff and it doesn't go unnoticed. The thunderous applause from the Sharon Playhouse audience is completely justified....and then some.

As Reno Sweeney, the brassy, flirty nightclub singer who is ready and willing for romance, particularly when the lights are low and a handsome man is standing right beside her, Amanda Lea Lavergne is both stunner and showstopper. It's a part that she plays with sass, brass, spunk, spirit and wickedly orchestrated heat and sensuality. It is also one she invests with the power and stamina of a Broadway leading lady who not only enjoys being center stage under the spotlight, but one whose undeniable spirit, electricity and love of performance could probably blow the roof off of Sharon Playhouse on any given night.

With beautifully coiffed red hair and a buoyant gait and blazing, wicked demeanor guaranteed to turn any straight man's head, the actress reminds one of Debbie Reynolds ("Singin' in the Rain," "The Unsinkable Molly Brown") with a dash or two of Lee Remick ("Anyone Can Whistle") and Amy Adams ("Enchanted") thrown in for extra measure. That said, she's no copycat either. Her Reno Sweeney is her own creation. Vocally, she is full-voiced with just the right amount of trumpeted blare, gusto and contagious pizzaz. As a dancer, she taps, glides, leaps and flows with wild, measured abandon. And when it comes time to toss off the play's cheery, icy and flip one-liners or engage in some pretty silly 1930s shenanigans, she takes told of it all with the timing and dash of  a Hollywood film star from yesteryear.

In the role of Moonface Martin, i.e., Public Enemy No. 13, who, for plot purposes is disguised as a parson, Paul Kreppel is every inch as good as Bill McCutcheon who played the part in the big, splashy 1987 Lincoln Center revival opposite Patti LuPone and Howard McGillan. His lovable moonface mugs, vaudevillian comic line delivery and double takes are portrayed and timed with delicious glee. And when it comes time for some burlesque shtick (a small dog's invasion of his trousers with a pinch or bite or two, for example), the actor's slow burn comic technique sets the stage for huge belly laughs.

The perfectly cast Caleb Albert is ideally suited for the role of the clean-cut, perplexed, misunderstood leading man Billy Crocker. He's handsome. He's dashing. He's Brooks Brothers and Yale University from head to toe. And when he sings, his full voice suggests that of the Yale Whiffenpoofs in all its glory. As Hope Harcourt, the social debutante that Crocker pines for despite her engagement to another, Amara Haaksman  is polished, charming, enchanting and desirable, which is exactly what the part calls for. But despite the musical's 1930's frivolity, the actress offers a fully-fleshed out performance that is anything but corny and one note. She also has the kind of singing voice well-suited for Cole Porter and Broadway musicals.

Edward Miskie, in the role of the deliciously witty, malaprop-prone Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, offers a hilarious comic portrayal of a twitty Englishman with a secret past just waiting to be unleashed. His English accent is splendid and perfect along with his decided English manner, dash and sensibility. He has great fun with the role and savors every minute of it whenever he's on stage. As Erma, the brassy, flirtatious young woman with a penchant for taking the pants off agreeable, lovesick sailors, Seana Nicol strikes all the right moves. She is funny. She is sexy. She is vulnerable. She is ditsy. And she lights up the stage whenever she's front and center.

As the musical's dancing and singing sailors, Richard Westfahl, Quinten Patrick Busey, Taylor Joseph and Nick Gurinsky turn heads with their swift, natural and athletic skills and tap dancing finesse. All four display a deft, decided facility for building momentum, speed and urgency in "Buddy, Beware," "Anything Goes" and "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," the show's big trio of musical production numbers. They also bring confidence, simplicity and a marvelous understated tension and passion to the proceedings, which choreographer Justin Boccitto utilizes to full advantage.

The perky, beautiful and delectable Jenna Chin, Katie Hardin. Michelle Lemon and Delaney Bailey accomplish similar feats as Reno Sweeney's sidekicks Virtue, Chastity, Charity and Purity. They are a polished, cohesive and energetic character-driven delight who lovingly bask in the sheer fun of the material, its 1930's playfulness and its show-stopping musicality.

And finally, let's not forget the double brother act of Colin and Tyler Gallagher, the real-life brothers and twins who play the ship's smiling pursers. Their love of theater and musical performance doesn't go unnoticed whenever they're on stage. They have a gift and they utilize it ever so naturally.

"Anything Goes" is stylish, tuneful, glamorous entertainment. The plot is simple and fun. The dialogue is wickedly cheeky and the absolute embodiment of a wonderfully bygone era. The Cole Porter songs are savvy, playful and sophisticated. And the entire cast is impressively showcased.
With shows as wonderful as this one, expect Alan Wager (Artistic Director) and Robert Levinstein's (Managing Director) tenure at Sharon Playhouse to last a very long time. They've stuck gold, and so have we.

"Anything Goes" is being staged at Sharon Playhouse (49 Amenia Rd., Sharon, CT), now through July 1.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 364-7469.

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