Back-in-Time Travel

Going to the Country Dinner Playhouse always feels like stepping back in time and into another America, the kind of place my in-laws would have recognized. They grew up on Colorado farmland, fell in love while they were in high school, even attended the kind of picnic dramatized in Oklahoma!, where the boys bid for picnic baskets and each got to the spend the day with the girl who packed his chosen lunch. (Remember how nasty Jud almost won Laurie, until stalwart Curly outbid him?) The crowd at the playhouse tends to be older; these are people who want a nostalgic good time and feel genuinely singled out and special when the Barnstormers sing their Happy Birthday number. The grub? Fried chicken, spiced apple rings, macaroni and cheese, soft factory-made bread -- the kind of dishes that would be welcome at any church supper.

The atmosphere fills me with nostalgia, though I couldn't quite tell you what for. It's not, after all, my own past that's being evoked. But I do remember my husband's parents bringing us to the playhouse as a special treat and their pleasure in being here, where the rudeness and uncertainty of the contemporary world was shut out, everyone danced and sang, and charming young people introduced themselves to you so nicely at the table.

You can imagine what happens when the work of a knowing sophisticate like Cole Porter is staged here: What it loses in nuance, it gains in good nature and high-octane -- if sometimes mindless -- energy.

Not that there's much nuance to Anything Goes. The show is a trifle, intended primarily to showcase Porter's songs, and the nugatory plot serves only to get a cast of stock characters on board an ocean liner headed for England. There's the pretty debutante; her charming, resourceful young suitor; a small-time crook who wishes he were big-time, though he really wouldn't hurt a fly; the sex-shy English lord; and, of course, the Ethel Merman role -- the broad with a great big belt.

Boulder Dinner Theatre staged Anything Goes a couple of years ago, using an updated script (Country Dinner sticks with the 1934 version by Guy Bolton, Howard Lindsay, Russel Crouse and P.G. Wodehouse). The Boulder version was sharper-edged, the set and costumes more interesting, the performances more clearly defined. Neither company boasts dancers of balletic quality, but the Boulder choreographer had figured out a way of showcasing the performers' strengths and downplaying their weaknesses. Michael E. Gold's choreography at the playhouse is far more athletic. It's filled with bits of business and calls for lots of endurance. Almost every number builds to a loud, fast climax. But the dancers' huge smiles don't disguise the fact that some of them are a trifle heavy on their feet.

On a certain level, this production is fun. It certainly worked for my thirteen-year-old companion, Seth, whose delighted laugh constituted one of the evening's high points for me. The cast is seasoned, and conductor-keyboardist Wendell L. Vaughn comes up with a good sound. No one's voice is a knockout, but most are decent, and a couple are better than that. Porter's songs -- "You're the Top," "It's De-Lovely," "Friendship," "Anything Goes" -- still hold their charm, though it's unfortunate that no one ever stands still for a second during a musical number or pauses long enough for a phrase to register.

Cyndi Neal has a nice worldliness as Reno Sweeny, and she takes the stage with confidence -- though I had to wonder just how she'd alienated the costumer, who at one point put her in shiny, white, form-hugging fabric and at another in an outfit that made it look as if she were wearing her bra on top of her blouse. Erica Hursh makes a lovely, graceful ingenue. Scott Foster has some moments of charm as leading man Billy. Though his accent isn't entirely convincing, Chris Keener does a good job of humanizing the poor, puzzled English toff. Greg Price's Moonface is funny, and Brenda Faatz plays his bubble-blond moll exactly as you'd expect her to be played -- with glitzy energy and a metallic music-box voice.

In my in-laws' day, no one saw anything wrong with depicting Chinese people as pigtail-wearing coolies, as Anything Goes does. I miss Mama-san and Papa-san, who died many years ago, but the sunny innocence of their America was an illusion, even then. In the end, it's a relief to walk out of the playhouse and leave it behind. -- Wittman