Monday, July 30, 2012
Theater review: Anything Goes! at Artisan Center Theater in Hurst
Another feather in the cap of a theater company that specializes in putting on big shows on a small scale.
As a script, Anything Goes! (playing at Artisan Center Theater through August 18) sometimes feels less like a play and more like a series of thinly veiled excuses to sing some Cole Porter songs. The shows staples, "De-Lovely," "You're the Top," "I Get a Kick Out of You," etc., aren't famous for being part of a legendary musical. They're famous because for years they've been commandeered by jazz musicians and the like and interpreted time and again until they've become standards. Even the show's title song "Anything Goes," is probably more well known (to a certain age of Americans) being sung in Mandarin by Kate Capshaw than by Ethel Merman or Patty LuPone or Sutton Foster, three of the more famous Broadway divas to tackle the role of Reno Sweeney.
It's not it's amazing story then, that pulls you into a successful production of Anything Goes! It is all about the singing, the dancing, and the Vaudevillian comic timing. If any of these are lacking, the flimsy premise of the story falls apart. Fortunately, Artisan Center Theater assembles all the right pieces and pulls together a delightfully entertaining show.
The plot of Anything Goes! (as far as there is one) involves the lovable scoundrel Billy Crocker as he stows away on a cruise ship headed for London in order to woo Hope Harcourt, whom he recently romanced but is about to lose to the affably awkward British nobleman, Sir Evelyn Oakleigh. Among the other passengers of the liner are nightclub singer Reno Sweeney and her saucy entourage, two-bit gangster Moonface Martin and his partner Bonnie, and a missionary and two Chinese "converts" who are racial stereotypes straight out of a censored Warner Brothers cartoon, but somehow fit in comfortably in a 1930s musical.
Though portraying the leads, Ben Stidham and Jordan Marett are probably given the least amount to do. Stidham, as Billy Crocker, is handsome and charming and his smile sends out signals that he's probably up to no good. His singing voice is incredible and he sounds great performing his allotment of Cole Porter standards. He doesn't quite have the ear for the distinct '30s-style banter originally concocted by the likes of P.G. Wodehouse, Howard Lindsay, and Guy Bolton. It's a performance barely held together by looks and charm and singing voice. Likewise, Ms. Marett, as Hope Harcourt, masters a prim flirtatiousness and sounds lovely when she sings, which is really all the script calls on her to do. Her recent turn in Artisan's The Importance of Being Earnest proves that she's a clever performer, capable of handling jaunty verbal humor. This particular script's interests, however, lie instead with the supporting cast.
Two of the biggest scene stealers in Artisan's production are Abi Abel as gum-smacking Bonnie, and Andy Komonchak as the perpetually antsy Moonface Martin. As a comedy duo, Abel and Komonchak seem to step directly out of a Billy Wilder farce. Miss Abel's dizzy giggling and bovine gum-chewing achieve virtuoso proportions that are topped only by the surprise of her tap-dancing skills. And she is more fun still when she's trading zingers with her partner-in-crime, Andy Komonchak, who exudes a sweaty, sad-sack neurosis that had me feeling nervous every time he came on stage. More than anyone in the show, Komonchak has total mastery over the Vaudevillian rhythms that help the gag-laden dialogue sing.
Of all the supporting players, the headliner of Anything Goes will always be Reno Sweeney, portrayed here with sparkling charisma by Brynn-Anne Brandenger. If you look up "moxie" in the dictionary, you'll likely see a still from this production of Ms. Brandenger, all dolled up and smiling infectiously. She has a ferocious chemistry with whomever is fortunate enough to be paired with her in any given scene, and delivers strong renditions of "You're the Top," "Take Me Back to Manhattan," and the eponymous "Anything Goes," which she not only sings with great gusto, but in which she also dances, keeping up admirably with her four "Angles." Brandenger is likeable in every possible way and this night's audience adored her. A telling moment came during one dance number in which the actress took an unfortunate tumble. She tenaciously jumped to her feet and finished the song and the audience seemed only to love her more, not so much for fighting off the potentially awkward moment as much as just ignoring it completely, as though she couldn't be bothered with such silly happenings.
Another standout in the supporting cast is Andy Wallington as Hope Harcourt's fiancé, Sir Evelyn Oakleigh. Though the character is introduced with all the hallmarks of a romantic comedy villain (a sniveling Englishman trying to steal the girl from the hero), Sir Evelyn becomes one of the few surprises the script offers. Rather than become a romantic foil, he morphs into a pleasantly endearing boob. Mr. Wallington certainly plays Sir Evelyn with a liberal dose of foppish twit, but his naivete in the matters of love and his gawky wonder at the flashy Americanisms of Reno and Billy are endearing in a manner than sneaks up on you. Wallington's awkward physicality provides even more great visual comedy as he is paired as a love interest with the much younger and demure Ms. Marett, then, more oddly still, with the boisterous and curvaceous Ms. Brandenger. Wallington fits into the role perfectly and allows the script to carry him to several very funny moments.
As mentioned above, the dancing is another great surprise. Choreographer and Director, Jody Madaras must be given a lot of credit not just for creating such fun, energetic dance numbers but for assembling a cast who could really dance, which is not always a given in community theater. The moment Abi Abel and the Reno's four Angels begin shimmying and tapping in "Heaven Hop," it's obvious that the Artisan chorus has a few surprises up its sleeve.
It becomes truly impressive when what is essentially the full cast close out the first act with a rousing group effort, dancing to "Anything Goes." Choreographing such a large group of performers with what I assume are widely varying levels of dance aptitude is challenging enough. Pulling off such show-stopping dance numbers within the limited confines of Artisan's theater-in-the-round is something else entirely.
The nifty period costumes from Nita Cadenhead and Julie Molina add a fun old-timey flair to the proceedings. Likewise, the set design by Chris Seil, Larry Dibler, and Director Jody Madaras are clean and minimalistic, keeping the main floor open for the actors, and utilizing a raised area on the western wall of the theater for a few key sequences. And when discussing sets at Artisan, one must always mention the lovely wall paintings, provided here by Lily Strapp-Courtney, which are essential in evoking the nautical and shipboard locales.
Any issues I may have with Anything Goes - the flimsy plot, the arbitrary nature of some of the songs, the racial stereotypes - are rooted in the script itself, a product of the themes and styles of the 1920s and '30s. Looking past all of that, it only needs to be asked whether Artisan has managed to pave over all the script's structural gaps, which is certainly possible by emphasizing the musical numbers with great singing and engaging choreography, and finding actors who can bring to life the stock characters and make the zany dialogue hum. The answer is a big Yes. Artisan's Anything Goes! is a rollicking great time and another feather in the cap of a theater company that specializes in putting on big shows on a small scale.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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