Sunday, February 02, 2003

Anything Goes (Great Lakes Theatre Festival)

‘ANYTHING GOES’ delights at Great Lakes

Take a typical 1930’s musical full of obvious plot twists and extended slapstick gags and give it a creative, no-holds barred production. The results: Great Lakes Theatre Festival’s delightful and audience-pleasing ‘Anything Goes.’

‘Anything Goes’ was first envisioned by its producer while hiding out aboard a fishing boat in the Gulf of Panama after fleeing the country to escape creditors. His idea was based on the premise of an ocean liner facing the threat of a possible shipwreck. He returned to New York, assembled a production team and started rehearsals. Unfortunately, the S.S. Morro Castle sunk off the coast of New Jersey. How could he open a happy go-lucky musical based on a ship wreck? So, the task of quickly rewriting the show was undertaken. The basic idea was retained, but the shipwreck was eliminated and a plot of hidden identities and unrequited love was substituted. Think ‘Importance of Ernest’-lite. The very title refers to the desperation with which the show was put together. Any and everything was tried to save the initial investment and make sure that the show went on.

The show, even in a recent rewrite which was used in the staging of this production, is long on music and short on plot. What is not wanting is the music of Cole Porter. Porter is a wordsmith of the highest order. His rhyming patterns and erudite language are unique among song writers. His songs require that you listen carefully in order not to miss a single word or clever phrase.

Porter’s background was unique among American popular composers of his era in that he was born to wealth, and that his apprenticeship took place not in Tin Pan Alley but in the playgrounds of Europe. Most Broadway writers of the era were immigrants, such as Irving Berlin, with little formal education. Porter’s schooling included Yale and the Schola Cantorum in Paris.

‘Anything Goes’ opened in November of 1934 and, in spite of the book, turned out to be the fourth longest running musical of the 30’s. Much of the credit for the success was not only Porter’s words, but Ethel Merman portraying an evangelist become night-club singer and singing such Cole Porter delights as "Blow, Gabriel Blow," "You're the Top," and "I Get a Kick Out of You". It’s pretty hard for anyone familiar with musical theatre to listen to those songs and not hear Merman belting them out. In 1987, the show was revised and revived.

The main action takes place on a luxury liner sailing from New York to Southampton and includes gangsters, evangelists, sailors and a whole lot of singing and dancing. Songs include such standards as, "All Through the Night," "It’s De-lovely,” “Easy to Love” and the title song, “Anything Goes.”

The Great Lakes production is blessed with the creative, let-loose directing of Victoria Bussert, creative choreography by Janet Watson and right-on musical directing by Steven Gross. John Ezell’s set adds to the effervescent feeling of the show, but the midstage turntable caused production problems, with the continued presence of stage hands moving the turntable and walking around backstage and some turning difficulties.

It was worth the price of admission just to see Steve Routman’s portrayal as Public Enemy number 12, Moonface Martin. He not only looks like Buster Keaton, but also has Keaton’s deadpan expression. He is a master of the ad lib as displayed several times when his covering of set mishaps and line fluffs brought extended applause from the audience.

Nancy Hess made the role of Reno Sweeney, the night club evangelist her own, choosing not to do an Ethel Merman imitation as often happens with those who portray this role. She has a pleasant voice and a nice perky acting style.

Hunter Bell, who has neither the physical or facial requirements of Broadway males who usually portrays leading man roles, nevertheless makes a creditable, if not outstanding, Billy Crocker.

Capsule Judgment: All-in-all ‘Anything Goes’ at Great Lakes Theatre Festival continues the thus far excellent year under new Producing Artistic Director Charles Fee.