COLE, COLE HEART

It may not run as smooth as brook water, but the production of Cole Porter's Anything Goes at the Country Dinner Playhouse sparkles with the sophisticated nonsense that made all those great Thirties musicals so endearing. Andrew Lloyd Webber and his clones couldn't pop a tune like Cole Porter (or George Gershwin, for that matter) if world peace depended on it. And no matter how extravagantly foolish the capers, there's more wit and intelligence in this goofball romance than in all the Phantoms of Broadway.

For one thing, Porter and the writers who worked with him (including the satirical wit P.G. Wodehouse) weren't trying to make a pop version of grand opera, so they didn't find it necessary to pick a plot that justified egregious behavior. The song and dance in Anything Goes is all sass and brass, and the story is full of wicked mockery of convention and digs at pretentious social climbers, hypocrites and fools. The faults of a show like this reflect the faults of Depression-era society--a frantic need for escape from the problems of poverty, a persistent racism (albeit soft-peddled) and an obsession with glitz.

So what's changed? We're still looking for escape, though we haven't anything near as good an excuse for it as the Great Depression. Glitz has gone high-tech, and racism comes more carefully disguised--just look at who's cast in the main roles of today's Broadway road shows and what stories are told. At least Porter and his boys realized that everyone deserved a tweak.

Anything Goes tweaks away joyfully--and with a sly optimism that has the virtue of offering viewers a chance to laugh at themselves as well as the characters. Porter's shipboard romance is filled with disguises, mistaken identities, subterfuges and subplots. The planned chaos and mad caricatures keep the show fresh, even for the jaded tastes of the 1990s. And the plot works itself out via ingenious humor and lively music.

Billy Crocker loves heiress Hope Harcourt. But her overbearing mama wants her to marry a British lord. Sir Oakleigh is horrendously inappropriate for the innocent Hope, but he's the perfect consort for the worldly con artist and entertainer Reno Sweeney, who arrives with her own backup singers, the Angels. Meanwhile, Public Enemy No. 13, Moonface Martin, disguised as a missionary (yes, Reverend Moonface), sneaks aboard the European-bound luxury liner with his moll, Bonnie.

Billy borrows the identity of another criminal who missed the boat, and he spends the entire voyage in various disguises trying to avoid the ship's authorities and woo his girl. Moonface tries to help Billy, but eventually Billy's luck runs out and the authorities pinch him. No matter--there are still plenty of preposterous ways in which love will triumph, despite aggressive mothers and legal mixups.

The best news about this show is Lise Simms as the daring, seductive Reno Sweeney. Combining her own sweet humor with a few of Mae West's moves and Carol Burnett's pathos, she creates a dazzling, raunchy and original vamp. But there's more good news in Terry Rhoads's terrifically disguised Billy. Rhoads's best moments come with his comedy bits--his instant changes from one persona to another and his split-second timing. John Paul Gamoke makes Moonface the cutest, funniest Public Enemy on the ocean. Liz Cox is adorable as the airhead Bonnie Latour, and her song-and-dance routine, "Heaven's Hop," with the Angels, is second only to Simms's smashing "Anything Goes" at the end of the first act.

There are a few missteps in the production. Some of the dance routines look a bit squished on the tiny stage, and sometimes the dancers fall out of synch. Laura Ryan as Hope has a nice presence, but her voice is too precious and mealy--you can't understand a word she sings. J.B. Trost is charming as Sir Evelyn Oakleigh, but he doesn't do well with the English accent.

However, Anything Goes does what it sets out to do, and if our interest flags now and again, well, it's in the nature of musicals to court silliness. Screwballery is its own reward.

 
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