John P. McCarthy
- Associate New York Theatre Critic
“Another Op'nin', Another Show” at the always reliable Westchester Broadway Theatre. Though not Cole Porter’s peerless “Kiss Me, Kate” which WBT staged several seasons ago, the musical just launched in fine fashion is his shipboard lark “Anything Goes,” a show laden with hit songs and swells engaging in lyrical romance and silly hijinks.
Speaking of openings, this production starts rather inauspiciously with a desultory overture during which three couples dance to a few bars of the title song before the first scene begins. Director and choreographer Richard Stafford sticks to this pattern of having short, quasi-balletic interludes during scene changes—a boon for chorus members, even if it contributes to a choppy passage.
His choreography impedes the flow in another way. Throughout the first act, numerous tap routines—executed in unison and with vigorous aplomb by the chorus and at least one principal—drown out the musical numbers, especially during “Bon Voyage” and the rousing rendition of the title song prior to intermission. This makes Porter’s ingenious lyrics, already challenging for an audience to pick-up in the best of circumstances, extremely difficult to decipher.
Porter’s urbane wordplay is his hallmark, and in “Anything Goes” the louche behavior and sophisticated style he’s known for infuse the show’s content as well as its form. Set to his own rhythmically enchanting melodies, Porter’s lyrics are risqué, intricate, playful and topical. They can also be described as the opposite of politically correct.
It’s ironic that a show which simultaneously reveled-in and spoofed a perceived loosening of public morals circa 1934, may, in several places, strike contemporary theatergoers as inappropriate, if not egregiously offensive. I’m referring to the musical’s innuendo and to sexist attitudes of the period, but also—and above all—to some racial stereotyping involving Chinese accents.
To my mind, the problem doesn’t warrant any major alterations or deviations from performing the show as written. Per the title song, what was once racy is now perfectly acceptable. Yet the opposite is true as well: what was once permissible is now out-of-bounds. Maybe the lesson is that things were ever thus—i.e., topsy-turvy.
If the moral progress of humankind is a crooked line, some things remain constant. For example, according to Porter’s depiction, a significant point of commonality between the 1930s and today is an obsession with celebrities. A main driver of the show’s plot (very loosely defined) is that, eager to hobnob with the rich and the infamous, folks will overlook all kinds of transgressions if the perpetrator is a recognizable name. The more things change the more they stay the same.
Anyhow, whenever one mentions how clever and witty Porter’s song lyrics are (or attempts to read too much into the show as a whole) it’s necessary to point out that the much-revised book for “Anything Goes” is pretty inane. That’s a quality it shares with many an enduring musical and one that works in its favor. A big reason for its initial success is that it revealed how silly and asinine members of the moneyed, well-connected upper class often behave. Arriving at the height of the Depression, it invites the audience to delight in, thus not feel inferior or superior to, the shenanigans of the idle rich and the unsavory activity of the criminal element, plus the characters that strive to be as reckless and pleasure-seeking as those in both sets.
Cast members seem to be enjoying themselves and the orchestra led by Patrick Hoagland follow suit by generating a bright sound. Leads Zach Trimmer and Stacia Fernandez demonstrate this open, happy-go-lucky spirit while performing “You’re the Top.” Mr. Trimmer always appears relaxed in the role of Billy Crocker, the junior stockbroker who stows away on the S.S. American, the ship carrying his wealthy boss Elisha Whitney across the Atlantic.
Dark and lanky, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, Trimmer is part matinee idol, part boy next door. His air of youthful sophistication and willingness to carry out the madcap humor brings to mind a young Cary Grant. And he’s no slouch when it comes to hoofing and singing either. When he goes up the scale to hit higher notes, he issues a pleasant falsetto warble reminiscent of many crooners from the 1920 and ‘30s.
Ms. Fernandez savors one of the prime roles in musical theater, written for Ethel Merman and called on to carry the load from a vocal standpoint. Seasoned chanteuse Reno Sweeney is fond of Billy, an admirer of her work in New York clubs, but knows he’s in love with the more age-appropriate Hope Harcourt. Hope is also aboard ship and slated to marry the much-older Lord Evelyn Oakleigh during the crossing. Among the compensations for not getting the (young) guy is the chance to deliver a quintet of iconic songs that Porter wrote at the height of his powers.
Imagine singing “I Get a Kick Out of You”, “You’re The Top” “Friendship” and “Anything Goes”, all before intermission! And then there’s “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” in Act Two. On a couple of occasions early on Fernandez appeared to be focused on navigating Porter’s intricate lyrics, mined as they are with tricky rhymes, proper names, and images. But as the show progressed her voice grew stronger and she took full charge of the proceedings.
The third performance that deserves to be singled out is by Kevin Pariseau as Lord Evelyn, the British aristocrat infatuated with American nomenclature and giddy for adventure of all kinds. Superbly natural and unforced, Pariseau never overplays it while conjuring a genuinely Wodehousian figure that’s a joy to behold.
Lord Evelyn’s chance to shine (with the deliriously funny “The Gypsy In Me’) comes in Act Two when the secondary characters get their songs and when, thankfully, the tap shoes have been thrown overboard and the dancing is all of the soft variety. Hope (Jackie Raye) has her solo “Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye”, in addition to pairing with Billy for a lovely version of the sensuous ballad “All Through the Night”). As gangster Moonface Martin, Jon J Peterson renders the ditty “Bluebird” in an exaggerated squeaky-New York accent; and Moonface’s oversexed moll Erma (Mychal Phillips) romps with sailors during “Buddie, Beware.” Everyone in the ensemble participates in the fantastic “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” the jazzy production number that offers a soulful respite from the zanier shtick… and the tap dancing.
When the final destination (a double wedding) is reached, you disembark feeling as though you’ve taken a wonderful voyage on sturdy vessel that should continue to entertain audiences for decades to come. That description pertains to “Anything Goes” as well as to the musical-theater mainstay that is Westchester Broadway Theatre.
“Anything Goes” runs through September 9th at Westchester Broadway Theatre, One Broadway Plaza, Elmsford, NY.