Irving — Anything Goes may be the name of the hit revival of the 1934 hit Cole Porter musical currently playing at the hit-prone Lyric Stage in Irving, but it is far from the philosophy of producer Steven Jones and musical director Jay Dias. This is a carefully researched recreation of the original show, just as audiences saw it before it opened on Broadway, at the Boston tryout, in the last few halcyon years before the start of World War II.
The show was written as a vehicle for the brassy Ethel Merman in the role of Reno Sweeney, who traded in her evangelist extravaganza for another showbiz career as a nightclub entertainer. There is a 1936 movie version, produced by Paramount, with Merman struttin’ her stuff for the silver screen. In 1954, a middle-aged Merman sashayed her way through the role once again, in a drastically rewritten version for television.
Indeed, these film versions were just the start of the challenge Dias faced to bring the original version to the Lyric Stage. Dias received permission from the Cole Porter Trust to spend a considerable amount of time digging through the archives at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., to find the original script and musical score.
The stage show exists in five versions. In addition to the original 1934 version, there is a version crafted for the 1962 revival, and one for the revival of 1987 and yet another for the 2011 production. In addition to the film and television versions mentioned earlier, Dias was especially interested in restoring the original full orchestra score, in some delightfully clever orchestrations by the master of such things, Robert Russell Bennett.
But any fear that this would be a musicologist’s meticulous and excruciatingly tedious delivery was dashed away with a boisterous cymbal crash elicited by an ecstatic Dias’ first emphatic downbeat. Thanks to Penny Ayn Maas, in an impressive Lyric Stage debut as director and choreographer, and an astonishingly capable assemblage of performers, the energy on the stage was just as explosive.
The plot is a silly confection that allows for some terrific comic scenes, many right out of vaudeville, and great Cole Porter songs to go with them. Basically, an odd collection of colorful characters, which are tangentially related by the wildest of circumstances, all end up on a luxury liner enroute from New York to London.
In the Merman role of Reno Sweeney, Daron Cockerell takes a different tack. Wearing one stunning evening gown after another, thanks to costume coordinator Margaret Claahsen, she is more Celine Dion than Bette Midler. But traces of her true nature, a bighearted-wrong-side-of-the-tracks broad, peek out under her carefully crafted elegant couture.
The roles for the two male leads were originally written for a male comedy team, quite well-known at the time: William Gaxton and Victor Moore. Such teams were wildly popular over the years, from Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin to Cheech and Chong, but seem to have faded. Traditionally one was the straight man, a romantic lead matinee idol type, and the other was a goofball. Thus, the two leading male leads in Anything Goes fit that pattern: Billy Crocker and "Moonface" Martin.
Billy Crocker, played by J. Clayton Winters, is a handsome rascal of a Wall Street broker. He works for Elisha J. Whitney, played with just the right amount of stuffiness by David Meglino, a benevolent tyrant, who depends on him so much that he regularly fires him. Winters is able to capture Billy’s effervescent charm, which has gotten him out of just slightly more scrapes that it has caused.
His comic foil is "Moonface" Martin, a criminal so dim-witted and incompetent that he only made No. 13 on the Most Wanted list. As Moonface, Andy Baldwin, a rubbery comic genius, achieves a height of criminality that is the stuff of dreams for his character. He steals the show. He even steals his “Moonface” moniker out of the program, being listed by his ridiculously inappropriate incognito name, Reverend Dr. Moon.
Baldwin is a superb comic actor with impeccable timing and the physical skills of a mime and dancer. Like all of the greats, Baldwin doesn’t even need lines to crack up the audience; his trusty machine gun serves as prop that proves his tough-guy pseudo-criminality and masculinity.
Billy is madly in love with Hope Harcourt, a beautiful heiress about to be married off to Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, the attractive but clueless scion of a family with a coat of arms but little else, to save his family’s failing fortunes. Kelly Silverthorn, a winsome beauty, brings quite a bit of depth to her portrayal of the ironically named Hope. Her situation is indeed hopeless: depending on the feckless Billy to rescue her from a stultifying future filled with titles, curtsies, and tea cozies.
Max Swarner gives the unfortunately named Evelyn an unexpected boyish charm as he raises the bar on naiveté to stratospheric levels. He also has the best voice on the stage. Evelyn is as bored with Hope as she is with him, so when he meets her exact opposite, the flashy Reno, sparks fly. Both Swarner and Cockerell are at their best portraying this yin-and-yang love-at-first-sight romance, which also has the added bonus of horrifying their parents.
Hope’s society matron of a mother, Mrs. Wadsworth T. Harcourt, is played to the hilt by Deborah Brown, who looks like she is wearing the entire contents of her steamer trunk. Her dismay at losing her daughter to a ne’er-do-well like Billy is only exceeded by seeing Evelyn, her chance to enter Burke’s Peerage, run off with a floozy like Reno Sweeney. Lord Oakleigh, played with stuff-shirted stiffness by a tut-tutting Mark Oristano, sees his son’s scandalous spousal selection and the Harcourt fortune is forfeited. But far worse than that, the new Lady Oakleigh is a nightclub-singing strumpet. Ya gotta love it!
The entire cast is terrific and equally talented as singers and dancers. At one point, they break into a huge tap-dancing production number with enviable accuracy. Reno’s boldly blonde coterie of chorus girls squeals delightfully and dances with the precision of the Rockettes. A lonesome squad of sailors strolls by offering a nautical version of a barbershop quartet.
And, of course, out of Cole Porter’s creative spigot flows a stream of hit songs that have achieved immortality: "Anything Goes,” "You're the Top," "I Get a Kick Out of You," “It’s De-lovely” and “Let’s Misbehave”—just to name a few. There are also songs added back that were cut in the Boston tryouts.
On the downside, the first act is too long and the energy falls flat in the second act; but this is the fault of the show and not this production. Things were moved around and rewritten for subsequent productions to solve this problem.
However, this doesn’t really matter to audiences at the Lyric Stage. Nowhere else, not in New York or Paris or London, do you have the chance to see Cole Porter’s mega-hit Anything Goes in its original incarnation, with a full symphony orchestra in the pit, led by Dias, and a superb cast on the stage.
» Read our interview with Dias about reconstructing Anything Goes