BWW Review: Ocean State Ends Season with Effervescent ANYTHING GOES
Like any art form, theatrical musicals can run the gamut in tone, style, tenor and execution. You can find everything from dark, serious, brooding drama to light-as-a-feather, fluff-filled entertainments. Which is not to say that either side of the fence is better or worse than the other, there are highs and lows at both ends of the spectrum. When it comes to the lighter, fluffier fare, there are few as fun and entertaining as Cole Porter's Anything Goes, now receiving a top-notch production at Ocean State Theatre Company.
Like many musicals of this kind, the plot is pretty simple and straightforward, and tends toward the boy-meets-girl-boy-tries-to-win-girl variety. In this case, the "boy " is Billy Crocker, a Wall Street broker who has recently fallen madly in love with Hope Harcourt, a debutante who is engaged to a young Brit named Lord Evelyn Oakleigh. Hope and Evelyn, and Hope's mother, are heading across the pond on the S. S. American and it's here, on the ship's decks and in its cabins, that the play's action takes place. Also on board are Reno Sweeney, an evangelist and nightclub singer, Moonface Martin, a notorious gangster, Erma, Moonface's partner in crime, and Elisa J. Whitney, Billy's boss. Billy, of course, finds his way onto the ship and fights the good fight to win over Hope, with the help of Reno, Moonface and Erma.
Many of the Cole Porter songs in Anything Goes are instantly recognizable, at least to any audience member of a certain age. And no matter what your age, they will immediately have you tapping your feet and bopping or swaying in your chair. It's impossible to resist the charms of some of these tunes, especially the classics, such as "I Get a Kick Out of You," "You're the Top," "It's De-Lovely," and the title number, which closes Act One. While, yes, there may not be many modern, contemporary musicals that feature this kind of music, that does not diminish just how great it is. Just how timeless and timelessly entertaining these tunes are, especially when they are sung with so much talent, energy and joy.
There's a freewheeling, lively and ebullient nature to both the songs and the book for this musical. The latter has gone through a number of changes, originally written by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, and revised by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman. It's interesting to discover just how much different versions of the show have been changed or rearranged, including songs and scenes that were moved, cut, etc. That sort of rearranging, and that number of cooks in the kitchen, may account for some of the clunkier elements of the scenes and dialogue. Still, there is much to enjoy here, including some extremely witty humor, a bit of door-slamming farce and a few laugh-out-loud moments. And really, this isn't a show about character development and depth or profound dialogue. It's about the songs and the music and the dancing, all of which are exceptionally brought to life in this production.
Leading that effort is director Amiee Turner, who mostly keeps things as light and breezy as they ought to be. Having said that, it's not one of Turner's best directorial efforts, as there are some moments where the pace really feels off or slows down too much. And there are too many times when a joke or laugh line isn't staged properly, is poorly timed or is allowed to land with a thud. There also seems to be an awful lot of actors singing while facing out, over the audience, rather than singing to each other, which may have been a stylistic decision for this particular kind of musical.
One of the very good things Turner has done is assemble a mostly spectacular cast who are perfectly suited for this particular kind of musical. Leading the way is Nate Suggs, delivering a pitch-perfect performance as Billy. You would be hard pressed to find an actor more charming and charismatic than Suggs, and he brings all of his considerable talents and assets to this production. He gives Billy a great sort of innocence and purity, two things that actually permeate the entire show. And he's got a perfect, silky-smooth voice that really shines during each of his musical numbers.
Alongside Suggs is Jessica Wagner, once again blowing everyone away as Reno Sweeney. Wagner brings a fabulously brassy and ballsy attitude to Reno, a larger than life personality to match her larger than life voice. When she uses that voice, she never disappoints, delivering knockout renditions of "I Get a Kick Out of You" and "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," among others.
Speaking of being larger than life, that can be said of almost everyone on stage. These characters are outsized and exaggerated, but in a good way. Among the most hilarious is Andrew Boza as Lord Evelyn Oakleigh. He's a joy to watch as Evelyn tries to figure out American phrases and struggles to figure out how to solve his own love-related problems. Boza has a wonderful flair for comedy and some hilarious dance moves as well. As Erma, Katie Howe is a revelation and an undeniable scene-stealer. She just about brings the house down during her big number, "Buddie, Beware," but she's also fabulous when she's just being fully present in a scene, responding and reacting to what's happening, often in hilarious ways. Also hilarious is Jason Loete as Elisha J. Whitney, another character who is exaggerated and played to uproarious effect.
While some characters are less big and over the top, the performances are no less fun to watch. Dennis Setteducati is fabulous as Moonface Martin, the most lovable gangster you will ever meet. Joshua Christensen, as the ship's captain, has some small, brief moments, but they are among the show's funniest. And Diana Blanda is very funny as Hope's poor, suffering mother. There is a fairly large ensemble here as well, led by Reno's "Angels" (led by standout Alison Russo) and a large group of sailors who dance and sing right along with the Angels. They are all a very talented bunch who never seem to miss a beat, especially during the fantastic tap numbers. Speaking of those numbers, Gerrianne Genga's choreography is really wonderful, often show-stopping, save for one or two surprisingly bland and lame moments.
If there's a weak link in the cast, it's Jade Genga as Hope. Truthfully, it's not all Genga's fault, the character is really challenging to make much of, it's sort of a historically thankless role. Hope really doesn't get to do much, she mostly stands around, reacting and responding to what is going on around her. She's not given nearly as much to do or say, or as much strength, as Reno and Irma, nor does she get the good musical numbers. Still, the right actress could fill the role with something, some kind of presence or charisma, and Genga doesn't have it. The rest of the leading performers tower over her, both physically and vocally, and she just can't stand out, especially considering the kind of enormous talent and charisma, both vocally and otherwise, that surrounds and overwhelms her.
Surrounding the cast perfectly is the set by Bert Scott, which provides just the right atmosphere for the show. A show this bright and ebullient needs that kind of bright set, which Scott also perfectly colors with a great lighting design. Not so great are the costumes, designed by Emily Taradash. Reno, especially, wears outfits that are, more often than not, really awful. Erma and Hope, on the other hand, get some fabulous frocks (except for that wedding dress) and the rest of the cast does get to at least wear some very fun, very colorful items.
Very fun and very colorful is a good way to describe this entire production and this musical, really. It may be of a different time or different era, but it's no less enjoyable than the hit musicals being written and produced today, especially considering the amount of talent involved in this excellent production. Just because that old Mustang was built in 1978, doesn't mean it's not still fun to drive.