As escapist entertainment, Cole Porter's Anything Goes hits all the right notes. Within its two hours of slap-happiness are heard some of American musical theater's wittiest, loveliest tunes: "I Get a Kick Out of You," "Friendship," "You're the Top," "It's De-Lovely," "All Through the Night," "Blow Gabriel Blow," "Easy to Love" and the title song itself. Along with Porter's timeless songs, there's also rollicking tap-dancing, nonstop goofy jokes ("Indochina and outdoor China!") and broad characters (including a couple of sexy broads). More fun you couldn't ask for.
The production of Anything Goes now onstage at Theatre Arlington gets almost everything right and does a few things, notably the wicky-wacky comedy, unexpectedly well. Director B.J. Cleveland, the former local TV kids' show host who's put in 20 years of good work as an actor and director at this community theater, has assembled a gangbusters cast of 23 actor-singer-dancers whose sky-high energy and sharp comic timing make up for the occasional shaky vocal.
Cleveland packages every scene in Anything Goes as a sparkly valentine to Americana. In sequin-strewn red, white and blue costumes, the shapely chorus girls and strutting sailor boys in this cast come off as all-American as apple fritters and their performances as corny as the assembly line at General Foods. God, they're cute, this bunch. Here you have young hoofers who look so shiny, fresh and ripe, their bottoms should be stamped with sell-by dates.
First performed on Broadway in 1934, Anything Goes was one of seven hits composer-lyricist Cole Porter created for the American stage during that decade, and it was the musical that catapulted jiggly-armed diva Ethel Merman to stardom. The show was successfully revived in New York in 1962 and again in 1988, that time with Patti Lupone in the Merman role as Reno Sweeney, a vampy evangelist-turned-nightclub-chanteuse who tries and fails to woo the male lead, Billy Crocker.
Except for a screamingly offensive stereotype of two Chinese characters (complete with coolie hats), Anything Goes holds up pretty well for Depression Era fare. The action takes place mostly aboard a luxury liner, the S.S. America, sailing from New York to Southampton. Reno Sweeney, traveling with the chorines she calls her "Angels," happily discovers young Billy stowed away on the ship. He's stayed aboard to keep an eye on his beloved, the airy debutante Hope Harcourt (Kelly Rypkema), whose money-hungry mother has betrothed her to a toffee-nosed Brit named Sir Evelyn Oakleigh (Nye Cooper). Crocker's boss, Wall Street tycoon Elisha J. Whitney (Dan Nolen Jr.), also is a passenger, as is the hapless gangster known as Public Enemy No. 13, Moonface Martin (John Garcia), skulking about incognito in clergyman's robes.
The ship's captain (Evan Faris), desperate to spice up the S.S. America's guest roster with a few celebs, mistakes young Billy for another on-the-lam underworld figure, so Billy decides to play the role to stay on the ship and win Hope away from Sir Evelyn.
All manner of silliness ensues as, like a Marx Brothers movie, Anything Goes sends its characters diving through doors and galloping over decks in various disguises. None of the script by Guy Bolton, P.G. Wodehouse, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse makes a lick of sense, but no matter, it's all frenzied, frothy fun. The whole idiotic mess ends with a triple wedding and a gigantic finale that leaves even the audience out of breath.
At Theatre Arlington the two leading roles go to Sara Shelby-Martin as Reno Sweeney and Chad Peterson as Billy Crocker, and, unfortunately, they're not the strongest elements in the show. Vocally, Shelby-Martin can loosen roof tiles with her lung power, but she is not a gifted comedian. She also looks a tad long in the choppers to be playing Peterson's love interest. And OK, there's no nice way to say somebody's not sexy, but Shelby-Martin, a small but sturdily built woman, just is not Mae West-y enough to be a believable trampy vamp. In some of the more elaborate costumes she's squeezed into, Shelby-Martin comes shockingly close to looking like a middle-aged drag queen playing Mae West with a devilish wink that says, "Yeah, I'm a man, baby." Kinda creepy.
Peterson's weakness as Billy Crocker is his thin voice that, as Paula Abdul might say, tends to get a bit "pitchy" when the songs travel toward the high notes. Peterson also has fey, nervous mannerisms. He relaxes vocally and physically when he's playing off Rypkema as Hope Harcourt, however. Their duet on "It's De-Lovely" is de-lightful. But teamed up with Shelby-Martin for "You're the Top," he's out-mugged and out-sung.
Tops in the cast are Nye Cooper as the whiny English nob, Sir Evelyn, and John Garcia as Moonface Martin. With his arched eyebrows and pencil moustache, Cooper offers a standout tribute to the late, great Billy DeWolfe. He's get-down funny in his solo "The Gypsy in Me," playing it so campy it should come with S'mores.
Garcia, who purloined a few scenes as Banjo in Theatre Arlington's fine Man Who Came to Dinner a few months back, gets to commit comic larceny again with his wildly over-the-top gestures and bulging eye-pops. Garcia's duet with Shelby-Martin on "Friendship" makes a "perfect blendship" built on the assumption that between the two of them, Garcia is the one with more girlish charm.
In the supporting role of Bonnie, Moonface's moll, is Heather Alexander, who taps like a dream and sings like a strangled parrot, which makes her solo, "Heaven Hop," even funnier than it's intended to be. Like Karen on Will & Grace, Alexander's Bonnie jiggles and squeaks with adorable abandon.
Also worth mentioning is Kelly Norman in the wordless role of a tipsy nun who lifts her skirts and taps like mad. Like so many other little out-of-nowhere touches that director Cleveland and tap choreographers Persis Forster and Persis Ann Forster have injected into the show, Norman's solo comes as a hilarious surprise.
Of course, highlighting this whole romp are Cole Porter's unforgettable melodies and his smart, cynical, sexy lyrics. Born to wealth and educated in the Ivy League, Porter sprinkled his musicals with boldly erotic asides and topical references that still are fun to parse. Like, dig those digs at Mrs. Ned McLean (wife of the Washington Post publisher), 1930s actress Anna Sten, Broadway producer Max Gordon, Eleanor "Mrs. R." Roosevelt and the Vanderbilts and Whitneys.
And this from Anything Goes' jaunty ode to superlatives:
You're the top.
You're Mahatma Gandhi.
You're the top!
You're Napoleon brandy.
You're the purple light of a summer night in Spain.
You're the National Gallery.
You're Garbo's salary.
Gandhi, Garbo and cellophane may be antiques, but some of the verses from the show's title song still have kept their contemporary context. "The world has gone mad today/And good's bad today/And black's white today/And day's night today." Yes, heaven knows. Go see Anything Goes.
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