Chicago Theater Review: ANYTHING GOES (Music Theater Works in Evanston)

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by Lawrence Bommer on August 19, 2018

in Theater-Chicago


It’s still “de-lovely,” but, steeped in bon-vivant euphoria and Roaring 20s’ hedonism, this 1934 musical is so silly it’s hard to believe it came out of the sobering Depression. But that was probably the point. A comforting throwback to such Jazz Age obsessions as goodtime flappers, gold-digging gigolos, and gangster chic, the book, by American funsters Lindsay and Crouse and British cut-ups Bolton and Wodehouse, was reassuringly retro.

Happily, its 17 Cole Porter songs — favorites like “You’re The Top” — are totally once and future. Eighty-four years later, this feel-good frolic remains — witness Music Theater Works’ captivating new revival! — a 175-minute, rug-cutting rampage. It still teems — for better or worse — with quirky characters whose vaudeville slapstick makes you think that the reforms in realism that Show Boat had delivered seven years before were slow to take root: The title Anything Goes explains and excuses more than it deserves.

Chock full of music-hall verve, the silly-ass plot unleashes a grab bag of novelty numbers, sometimes stupid stage business, now-dreadful stereotypes, and antediluvian shtick. In short, it exists, now as then, to showcase songs that, unlike the book, never grow stale. At the height of his tunesmith triumphs (and just before the riding accident that would condemn him to lifelong pain), Cole Porter could turn out infectious rousers like the title treat as effortlessly as the Martinis he downed in his Venetian villa.

Here dotty passengers and showbiz sailors on an anarchic ocean liner transpire in mistaken identities, amorous deceptions and shameless impersonations as if Roman comedy were here to stay. Keeping this groaner nonsense fresh are Cole’s classics, showbiz diamonds unequaled in lushness or freshness until Kiss Me, Kate arrived 14 years later.

Employing the rewrite by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman that accompanied the Lincoln Center revival, Rudy Hogenmiller’s peppy staging honors an anything-for-a-laugh book where the only sentiment is a throbber like “I Get a Kick Out of You.” (Usually included in revivals, “Let’s Step Out,” “Take Me Back to Manhattan” and “Let’s Misbehave” are omitted, replaced by the soubrette’s second-act solo “Goodbye Little Dream, Goodbye,” a delicious discovery.)

Definitely your Ethel Merman-style, ginger-sharp and leather-lunged belter, Erica Evans, as Reno Sweeney, the unofficial cruise director of the S.S. American, revels in both her “I Get a Kick…” (despite a well-retrieved false start on opening night) and the heavenly hijinks of her “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.” And only Porter’s persuasive ditties could make sense of Reno’s strange romance with Maxwell J DeTogne’s upper-class twit (“The Gypsy in Me” being his improbable audition ballad).

Playing a supposedly “broken broker,” charismatic Ken Singleton shares the fun as plucky hero Billy Crocker seduces with the entrancing “Easy to Love” and “All Through the Night.” He also dons now-dated disguises in order to woo away Lexis Danca’s beautiful Hope Harcourt from a loveless alliance. (In Titanic, his parallel, of course, turns up as Jack Dawson and she becomes Rose Bukater.) Never more so than in their dance delight “It’s De-lovely,” Singleton and Danca are live wires who could electrify the longest ocean voyage.

Brian Zane is zany indeed as much-mugging mobster Moonface Martin, who becomes a minor-league shipboard celebrity after he’s exposed as “Public Enemy No. 13.” Crooning clichés, he’s also a small-bore philosopher with his idiotically optimistic ballad “Be like the Bluebird” and the ultimate sidekick in “Friendship,” his enthralling duet with Reno.

Thanks to conductor Roger L. Bingaman’s undiminished orchestrations, it’s a very pretty package. Kudos also go to choreographer Clayton Cross: Finding the right step for every note, he deftly delivers heavy hoofing and nifty tap-dancing routines in the title blast from the past, Kayla Boye’s gangster-moll production number “Buddie, Beware,” and the goofy gospel about Gabriel: with its quartet of robed “Angels,” this revivalist blow-out merrily mocks radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson and anticipates the spiritual spoof “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” from Guys and Dolls.

Clever cameos abound from Liz Norton, channeling Margaret Dumont as Hope’s snooty mom, and Rick Rapp as Yalie doofus Elisha Whitney, a cross between a Wall Street mogul and Mr. Magoo.

Finally, Kristen Martino’s very flexible inside/outside nautical set and Alexa Weinzierl’s undepressing 1930s costumes come together like words and music.

All in all, MTW’s gag-packed, loose-limbed and hyper-happy revival offers no rough passage and fares as well as we want at laying out some very formulaic fun. No question, Anything Goes confirms its rambunctious chorus “There’s No Cure like Travel.” The real take: There’s no cure like Cole.

photos by Brett Beiner

Anything Goes
Music Theater Works
Cahn Auditorium
600 Emerson Street in Evanston
Fri and Sat at 8; Wed, Thurs and Sun at 2
ends on August 26, 2018
for tickets: 847.920.5360 or Music Theater Works

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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