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Review: Anything Goes Finds Smooth Sailing in Littleton

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Anything Goes Littleton Town Hall Arts Center

Anything Goes premiered in 1934, after a hasty rewrite: The original plot concerned a shipwreck, and shortly before the play's scheduled opening night, a fire broke out on a cruise liner and 137 passengers were killed. By then the writing team, which included P. G. Wodehouse, had moved on, and Timothy Crouse and John Weidman came in to rewrite the script, tossing it together so quickly and creating such a hodgepodge of improbable plot events, corny jokes and juvenile fun that at some point someone exclaimed, "Anything goes" -- and the title became a description of the process of putting the thing together. See also: Lucky Me Is a Lucky Catch for Curious

But the plot wasn't the point. Anything Goes is about songs, and those songs are by Cole Porter, that elegant genius of musical theater. Almost all of them are now classics: smart, tuneful, touching, funny, silly or sophisticated. I can imagine my father crooning "Easy to Love" to my mother on the day they married in London during World War II, and to this day, the minute an audience of almost any age hears the first notes of "I Get a Kick Out of You," "You're the Top," "It's De-Lovely" or "Anything Goes," they can hum what comes next. There are also huge, exuberant numbers like "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" and some lesser-known gems, including the brief, wistful "Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye" -- and all of these are performed with joy and skill by the talented cast at Littleton Town Hall.

The action takes place on a luxury liner bound for London. Among those on board are onetime evangelist-turned-nightclub sensation Reno Sweeney and the man she loves: a stockbroker named Billy who was supposed to return to shore to pick up the passport of his boozy former-Yalie employer, Elisha J. Whitney, but instead lingered on the ship because he loves pretty debutante Hope. Primarily because of her wealth- and title-hungry mother, Evangeline, Hope is engaged to Lord Evelyn Oakley. Gangster Moonface Martin is also a passenger, disguised as a priest and with his moll, Emma, in tow. There are lots of very bad jokes. Whitney is always drunk and loves giving the Yalie bulldog cry; Lord Evelyn gets his aristocratic tongue ridiculously tangled by American idioms; Emma spends her time seducing sailors; Moonface is one of those comically inept crooks who keeps tripping over himself. When the humor isn't in the songs, it tends not to work that well, and the running joke of Moonface's two Chinese card-sharp hangers-on, complete with thick eyeglasses, beanie hats and even thicker accents that promiscuously swap rs and ls, sets the teeth on edge. (Though we live in a world where the word "illegal" in a restaurant name or an eminent scientist's silly shirt can evoke huge gusts of Internet rage, there hasn't been much controversy about this, although a few critics around the country have voiced distaste. But imagine the reaction if similarly outdated stereotypes of Mexicans, African-Americans or gay people were presented on a stage. I understand that these Chinese characters would be hard to cut because of their place in the plot -- but considering how slapdash that plot is, someone surely could do it.)

Some of the comic acting is a bit heavy-handed, too; it might have been funnier if Robert Janzen's Lord Evelyn had rendered his many blunders in a dignified, impeccable English accent instead of a deliberately cartoonish one -- but his rendition of "The Gypsy in Me" is such a delirious combination of grace and gracelessness, true abandon and stunted klutziness that it lights up the entire second act. And that's not the only strength of director Nick Sugar's lighthearted production. Reno Sweeney is a fantastic role for a spirited, larger-than-life singer, and Norrell Moore is on hand to lend her humor, fine comic timing and strong voice. Zach Stailey has a calm, warm presence and a voice that blends beautifully with Alison Mueller's lovely soprano as Billy and Hope sing their bittersweet duet, "All Through the Night." Musical director Donna Kolpan Debreceni and her musicians are positioned on a visible platform, as if they were playing on the ship's deck, and their light-fingered accompaniment livens up the evening. Overall, the show is a fluffy, fizzy helium giggle, a whirl of no-thought-required sound and color in a fantasy world where, indeed, anything goes.

Anything Goes, presented by Littleton Town Hall Arts Center through December 28 at 2450 West Main Street, Littleton. For ticket information, call 303-794-2787 or go to townhallartscenter.org.

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