Monday, February 18, 2013
Theater review: Shout “Hallelujah!” and “Amen” for the Anything Goes national tour
Expect sparks, flames, and flashes galore.
DOWNTOWN DALLAS Talk about irony. Here I am, writing up my review on Anything Goes, while flashing across my TV is the news about the Carnival Cruise Lines ship that caught fire on board damaging the propulsion system. Those poor passengers have been stuck on that ship since Sunday with no food, no electricity, and no running plumbing. The kicker is the name of the ship -- Triumph. Where’s Shelley Winters and a big Christmas tree when you need one! But I digress ...
I have a very (and I mean very) small list of war horse musicals that I have no problem seeing again. I grew up on the stage, starting at age five, and since that time I have oh so done my share of those old, creaking musicals from Broadway’s past. (Some I’ve done 8-10 times, if not more.)
Or I have sat through endless productions of them because either friends are in them, or as a critic I had to go review them. I’ve also seen several Broadway revivals of these classics from the musical canon. Now before you hunt me down and throw the libretto from Oklahoma at me, I sincerely do understand and greatly appreciate the artistry these musicals have achieved towards the creation and growth of the American Broadway musical. If it wasn’t for them, this art form would not be what it is today. I get it. I’ve done them, I’ve seen them (lord have I’ve seen them!), and got the t-shirt to prove it!
But as someone who has wadded through these ancient relics over the years, there are just some that I can’t sit through one more time. You’d have to drag me through shattered glass and duct tape me to the seat to make me watch it again.
But full disclosure here. I have four major, personal reasons why I have such a great love, connection, admiration, and affection for Cole Porter’s Anything Goes.
One: Cole Porter’s score still holds up masterfully even today. The melodies are like mental gum that gets stuck in your brain and you can’t stop humming them. His lyrics are crispy, whimsical, and paint such great pictures for the audience. The books (it’s been retooled three times now) still contain big, hearty laughs. Sure, some are corny, but the bulk of that book is colorful, sturdy, and gives all the principals great scenes to shine, rare in today’s musicals.
Two: I’ve had the great thrill and pleasure in performing the role of Moonface Martin in over twenty productions, both Equity and non-Equity ( Florida, Pittsburgh, and Texas), in both the original and the 1987 Lincoln Center versions in which the book was updated and some of the songs were changed. It’s one of my personal all-time favorite roles.
Three: I saw the 1987 revival starring Patti Lupone, my first time to see this Broadway legend on stage. I was completely hypnotized by the freshness of the material, with its new book and song arrangements, plus Lupone’s performance and that dazzling tap choreography by Michael Smuin.
Four: And here’s where I’ll get into trouble. I still laugh out loud when I hear the hysterical spoof from Forbidden Broadway where they did their own interpretation of Lupone’s rendition of the title song. I still giggle when I listen to it.
The seed for creating this musical came in 1934 from the mind of Producer Vinton Freedley. He was actually living on a boat away from America to avoid his creditors! He thought that a musical set on an ocean liner that had a bomb threat, a shipwreck, and then wind up on a deserted island sounded like the perfect musical. So he found P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton to write the book and Cole Porter the music. The star would be the big belter herself, Ethel Merman.
However, just two weeks before its Broadway debut, a fire occurred on the passenger ship SS Morro Castle, causing the deaths of 138 passengers and crew members.
Freedley felt strongly that if they went on with the current show they had (titled at that time, Hard To Get) it would be in such bad taste due to that recent tragedy. So he demanded immediate changes to the book.
Other musical theater historians have stated that Freedley actually wanted the script reworked because it was such a terrible, hodgepodge mess of a book! But unfortunately, Bolton and Wodehouse were in England and had no more time to devote to the show. Freedley decided to go to the director, Howard Lindsay, to write a whole new book.
To assist him, Lindsay brought in press agent Russel Crouse as his collaborator. One of the major changes these two created was that they took the roles of Billy Crocker and Moonface Martin and majorly bumped up their comedic book scenes (such as the various disguises they assumed as the show progressed).
Theatre legend has it that the show's new title, along with the Act 1 finale, was born from this rapid change of the book. During one late-night production brain storming meeting, someone on the creative team screamed from the piano, "And just how in the world are we going to end the first act?", to which a sleepy producer lying on the couch mumbled, "Anything goes!"
There are now four versions of the libretto: the original 1934 version, the 1962 off Broadway libretto, the Lupone 1987 revival libretto, and the current 2011 revival libretto (aka the Sutton Foster version).
Each revival has changed not only the book, but also the lyrics and song placement. For example, "Friendship", a song that originally was in Porter's musical Dubarry Was a Lady, but was cut during the out of town tryout. The first two versions have the three leads sing it, but in the 1987 and 2011 versions it’s just Reno and Moonface.
The original 1934 Broadway production ran for 420 performances. The 1987 Lupone version ran for 784 performances, earning ten Tony award nominations and winning three, including Best Revival of a Musical.
It returned to Broadway in 2011 starring triple threat star Sutton Foster. It opened to glittery waves of critical acclaim. This revival racked up 521 performances and was bestowed with nine Tony award nominations, earning Foster her second Tony award for Best Actress in a Musical. It also won (for a second time!) Best Revival of a Musical.
If you know this show frontwards and back, you will immediately pick up on how drastically they have reworked the book and score. Some songs from the other versions are gone, while a couple of others that were not in the latter two versions are back in. The numbers have been re-orchestrated with a toe-tapping zest to them. Several have new endings, while others have been inserted with terrific new dance breaks, such as “It’s De-lovely”, “All Through the Night”, and “Blow, Gabriel Blow”.
There are some songs from the original 1934 version that I prefer and had hoped would have been put back in the 2011 version. In Act 1, Bonnie (or Erma as she was renamed in the latter two versions), Moonface’s sidekick, had a zany, wild tap number with Reno’s Angels called “Heaven Hop”. That is a fabulous number by Porter and gave Bonnie a first act number. Bonnie/Erma also had a second wacky, yet infectious number with a peppy dance break titled “Let’s Step Out”, sung in Act 2 right after “Public Enemy #1”, but after the 1934 version, it was cut , never to return. Thus, this now gives her only one big number “Buddy Beware”, which now has fewer verses. She’s such a great character that audiences adore, so to whittle down her songs has always baffled me.
Another great number was “Take Me Back to Manhattan”, sung by Reno and her Angels. It was a song originally from another Porter musical, The New Yorkers. When I first did this show in summer stock, I was a kid in the ensemble. But I would sit off stage to watch this fantastic song Porter composed brought to life on stage. It was no where to be seen for the 1987 and 2011 versions.
Sir Evelyn originally had for his major solo “Let’s Misbehave”, a classic Porter tune, but once again, it was dropped in later versions and replaced with “Gypsy in Me”, another dropped song from another Porter musical. This song was originally penned for a musical called Paris.
The 2011 book took the best parts of the 1987 and 1934 librettos, plus added new material to create what I consider the best book out of all the previous versions. It’s much, much funnier and the new material is gut busting comedy gold. The tweaking of several verses (adding, deleting, expanding, etc.) in many songs also elevate the score, like a glistening polished musical bauble. The added dance breaks are marvelous and give the numbers that extra jolt of electricity and vitality to them; plus it gives the dancers much more creativity on stage.
Add all these changes and you get a completely new version of Anything
Goes that achieves a very rare feat in musical theater. And that is to magically transform this old musical classic, and give it a glowing, glittery new coat of artistic paint. So, what you end up with is a magnificent new musical that had the audience standing to their feet Wednesday night at the Winspear!
Kathleen Marshall is at the helm as Director and Choreographer and her work here is extraordinary. She has that cast coasting at a perfect pace throughout the evening. It is obvious to the eye that she has allowed the actors to bring their own comedy to the table, and what a feast of laughs it is. The choreography (especially the tap numbers) are the WOW factor of the show. The formations, precision execution, creativity, and visual beauty of the choreography are out of this world phenomenal! Throughout the evening the audience would burst into applause because it is just so exhilarating and astonishing to watch unfold on stage.
The design elements are exquisite from the moment you arrive at the theater. A massive scrim with a ship, the show’s title, and lighting to simulate water is right there before you.
The costumes are designed with magnificent taste by Martin Pakledinaz.
This would be one of his last musicals to design for Broadway. Before his untimely death of brain cancer in July 2012, he had also designed costumes for Chaplin the Musical, and another Marshall hit (still running on Broadway), Nice Work if You Can Get It. His work for Anything Goes earned him a Tony nomination, and once you see the confections of cloth he designed, you’ll see why. Crisp starched sailor suits, well-tailored and detailed period suits, elegant tuxes fashioned for the men. But the girls get the glitz and the glamour. His color palette stays in golds, crèmes, blues, reds, and purples. The fabrics are lush, flowing, and look very expensive. He wisely made gowns with lightweight fabrics and billowing skirts so that when they dance, the material becomes like clouds around them. Reno’s first costume is a knock out. Dark coffee floor-length skirt with a slit up to there, a top heavily beaded in gold, all topped off with a long fur. And that is just the first costume! It is a never ending costume parade that is breathtaking. It is so tragic we lost such a brilliant designer, but at the Winspear his work lives on.
Derek McLane’s scenic design of a blinding-white, enormous, three tier ship is grand beyond words. There are three towering upper decks with two big units on opposite sides that whisper in and out. Each side has a winding staircase to get to those other decks. For the state rooms, McLane designed these spiffy, elegant, very detailed box units that resemble dioramas. For the main lounge McLane goes full out Art Deco. A sleek, silver, mirror-trimmed staircase dead center with a humongous ornate design in dark purples and satin resembles pure Erté.
The lighting design by Howell Binkley immerses McLane’s sets with rich, glimmering hues of blues, purples, reds, fuchsia, and other colors. Each musical number has an assortment of swirling colors that gives the numbers that extra oomph of energy. I particularly like that all the circular window portals would change colors to match the mood of the music or scene.
There are not enough adjectives to praise the superlative work this cast does in this Cole Porter classic. They work their hearts out to entertain the audience, and were rewarded with an ear splitting standing ovation for their work Wednesday night.
The ensemble of sailors and angels are sensational. They dance up a storm, from energetic jazz baby to ballroom to sizzling tap. Take the title number, a never ending tap number that builds and builds, so much so that the audience kept applauding throughout the number! They tap with lightning speed, switch formations in a split second, and tap like there is no tomorrow. I thought sparks would appear from their tap shoes and scorch the Winspear stage – they were that hot!
The sailors (Jeremy Benton, Gary Lindemann, Michael Milton, Bobby Pestka, Ryan Steer, Kristopher Thompson-Bolden, Aaron Umstead, and Tony Neidenbach) have mischievous fun on stage. Talk about triple threats. They sing the harmonies in “There’s No Cure Like Travel”, and especially in “All Through the Night” with tight, pristine, perfect pitch vocals. They achieve some festive laughs in several scenes. And when they dance, look out! They have a show-stopping choreographed number with “Buddy Beware”.
Reno’s Angels (Jacqueline Burtney, Courtney Rottenberger, Dionna Thomas Littleton, and Vanessa Sonon) resemble those gorgeous, va-va-voom girls from those MGM musicals by Busby Berkley, or the goddesses from the Ziegfeld Follies. I love how they constantly have pristine yet very sexy poses and gestures, all in unison. That’s why I so wish they’d brought back “Heaven Hop”. I would have loved to see what these four girls could do with that number. Nonetheless, they sing like nightingales, dance like Ruby Keeler, and act like the sultry bombshells they are!
Also providing zany, hilarious performances in the cast are Dennis Kelly as Elisha Whitney; Sandra Shipley as Mrs. Evangeline Harcourt, Vincent Rodriguez III as Luke, Marcus Shane as John, and Chuck Wagner as the Captain. One might not notice him under that beard, but for you musical theater addicts, such as me, Wagner originated the role of Rapunzel’s Prince in Sondheim’s Into the Woods. The very one on the original telecast with Bernadette Peters!
The role of Hope Harcourt is a tough role to pull off. She really has no solid comedic book scenes. Alas, the book never really does justice to this character. She’s there to either observe the bigger than life comedic characters circling around her, or she gets upset at Billy and exits in tears. Thankfully, Alex Finke brings some much needed freshness to the role. Finke’s soprano voice is so clean and pristine,and when she reaches into the higher register of her voice for the high soprano endings of her songs, she does it effortlessly. Many sopranos in that role crack or have this strange break in their voice to reach those notes, not Ms. Finke. She glides up to them smooth as silk. Her beautiful execution of the prolonged dance breaks is as soft as the flowing chiffons she wears on stage. She dances like Ginger Rogers!
Erich Bergen delivers a smashing performance as Billy Crocker; like the others, a triple threat from head to toe. He sings with a smooth tenor voice that had the women (and some men) in the audience swoon when he sang those classic Porter ballads. He dances beautifully, especially in the extended dance breaks for some ballroom elegance with Hope in “All Through the Night”. When he dances he reminds you of Fred Astaire. Some actors who have played Billy seem to never get the comedy right. Remember, in the original script, the comedy was pumped up quite a lot for Billy. Bergen nails the comedy in every scene. His facial expressions are priceless and his timing is spot on. Bergen has wonderful chemistry with both his leadings ladies, his co-partner in disguise Moonface, and the rest of the company.
The two comedic tornados that become the scene stealers of the night belong to Edward Staudenmayer as Lord Evelyn Oakleigh and Joyce Chittick as Erma. Both nail it perfectly in roles that demand razor sharp comedy timing, pace, and delivery. What gives the roles that extra kick of laughter is the ingenious creativity that these two talented performers added to their roles. They add new bits, ad-libs, and delivery of the lines that had me guffawing loudly.
Staudenmayer is downright hilarious as the British Lord engaged to Hope. He has that rare gift in comedy that cannot be taught. You either have it in you or don’t, and he does! He knows exactly where to achieve bigger laughs, before, during, or after the punch line or comic set up. Anyone can say a funny line. But there are those comedic actors who dissect each line around the punch line to excavate new laughs. It could be a facial expression, the tone of how to say the line, the volume, and so on. Staudenmayer does this in every single scene he’s in. What he does with “Gypsy in Me” will have you rolling in the aisles.
The same comments on comedic gifts can be said about the gorgeous Ms. Chittick. She doesn’t just chew the scenery, she devours it and goes next to chew up the lobby – the girl is a comedic genius! She completely overshadows Moonface with her ballsy, “New Yawkish” accent, with a tough gun moll attitude, she’s one sexy kitten. Nah, not kitten, but instead a sensual panther camouflaged in sequins. Chittick is coated with a dynamic stage presence that commands attention the second she steps on that ship. And does this gal know how to land a comic zinger or line. I howled in laughter thanks to Ms.Chittick’s comedic brilliance here. That is why it is so disappointing that they didn’t put back in “Heaven Hop” and “Let’s Step Out” for her. I kept thinking in my seat, “Wow. What Chittick could have done with those two numbers!” You could literally feel the audience begging for her to return on stage. Her one big solo, “Buddy Beware” is a choreographed show stopper! I adore this girl!
Let me say straight from the start- I thoroughly enjoy Fred Applegate’s performance as Moonface Martin. The new visual bit with the spotlight and extended vocals created for his one big solo,
“Bluebird” is refreshing and very jovial. But Applegate seems low in wattage, regarding energy. Many of his punch lines and comedic zingers are said in a soft, monotone voice. Moonface is bigger than life. A Jersey gangster who hates being public enemy number 13! This character, next to Reno, has the best comic lines in the entire book. But Applegate’s straight man approach to them didn’t floor me in laughter. Those laugh lines and zingers are there to make the audience hold their bellies in laughter. While Applegate does achieve loud laughter at times, he misses so many golden comic moments, bits, and gags. The role has a specific comedic rhythm, pace, timing, and delivery. Applegate keeps dropping the comedic ball in several key scenes, such as scenes with the Bishop and later on in the state room scenes with Whitney, Reno, Erma, and Billy. Again, while I did very much enjoy Applegate’s performance, as did the audience with loud laughter on Wednesday evening, I kept looking for that hilarious comedy that is crafted into the role.
You know you are watching a star being born before your very eyes when they can steal a show from a legend like Julie Andrews! When I saw Victor/Victoria in New York, this gorgeous creature named Rachel York, playing Norma Cassidy, slathered in tight satins, walked on stage and spoke her first line. Well, the rest was Broadway history. She stole the show. Period. It was a disgrace she did not receive a Tony award nomination for that role. I saw her again on Broadway in The Scarlet Pimpernel as Marguerite St. Just She was superb in the role and I so wished it was her voice on the original cast recording. She is that rare star that practically no longer exists on Broadway anymore.
When I read on Playbill,com that York was playing Reno Sweeney in the national tour, I knew she would be sensational in the role, and boy was I right! She comes on stage in the first scene set in a bar, dressed like a MGM star, knocks those comedic lines like a pro, and sings with vocal finesse, “I Get a Kick Out of You”. She immediately won the audience over, and that was just the first scene!
She physically looks exactly how Reno should look like in my mind – a devastatingly beautiful face framed in platinum blonde hair, haunting eyes with pools of sensuality within the iris, and one hell of a walk that turns grown men into drooling zombies as they watch her walk away. But Reno’s also a tough gal that won’t take crap from any man. York’s mannerisms, posture, walk, and speaking voice (which she has changed in every show I’ve seen her in), has an aura of those platinum bombshells and tough gals from film’s Golden Age. She is an amalgamation of Jean Harlow, Carol Lombard, Veronica Lake, Marylyn Monroe, with a dash of Rosalind Russell! When York steps on stage, everyone else disappears. Her stage presence is so blinding that you need sunglasses!
Her comedic talents are endless. She’s another rare performer with the great gift of comedy. York brings to the table her facial expressions, volume, voice inflections, timing, pace, and a delivery to knock the audience over like a comic tidal wave. She knows instantly where to take the right pause or facial expression to give the punch line or set up that extra rim shot of laughter. Scene after scene she uses her comedic power like a Tommy gun and kills the audience in laughter. She has this exceptional feat of changing the comedic timing, pace, delivery, and approach for each lead she is with on stage. Watch how she changes it with Billy, Moonface, and Sir Evelyn. She is a master class in comedy!
Then there’s that soprano voice! She can sing with comedic overtones to make the songs robust and overflowing in laughter, but then sings her ballads in an elegant, alluring vocal tone that lifts you into the clouds emotionally.
But here’s where even I was in for a major surprise. I had no idea what a freaking AWESOME dancer she is! Sure in V/V she did choreography for the number “Chicago, Illinois”, but Reno Sweeney is a whole other story! Take the title number. She first has to sing several long measures of music with tons of lyrics, and then begins to tap…..and tap…and tap! She builds this ladder of jaw-dropping dancing like you can’t believe! The audience actually applauded loudly in several sections (like her endless tap spin all down the arch created by the cast – thanks to her tapping glory! For “Blow, Gabriel, Blow”, again, lots of measures and lyrics, then an added prolonged dance break, and once again York dances up a storm. The choreography for both of those numbers is resplendent. Plus both numbers has York dancing up a storm, and as if that isn’t enough, she then has to belt out a very long sustaining soprano note that goes on for days! And man does she succeed there as well! York executes these two complicated numbers with such high energy and finesse, you will trip over the many jaws that drop on the floor because you can’t believe what you just saw out of York in those two numbers!
Every scene and every song, York delivers a performance you will never forget. As I stated earlier, she is that rare creature of Broadway that has the “IT” factor in abundance. So few stars like her exist on the Great White Way. And she’s here in Dallas right now. You will deeply regret missing the superlative Rachel York as Reno Sweeney.
It is so rare to have in Dallas two first rate exceptional national tours here at the same time. At Dallas Summer Musicals you have Catch Me If You Can, while at the Winspear you have Anything Goes. Make it a day of musical theater heaven and catch both productions!
This new, scintillating, opulent, hysterical production of Anything Goes is what every revival of those war horse musicals should strive to achieve – to dust off the old, musty relic material and polish it into a stunning gem. The entire team of this production of Anything Goes does just that, both in front and behind the curtain. Call the Winspear Opera House, grab your passport, and book yourself on this cruise of never ending laughter! Make sure to attend Reno Sweeney’s church revival in the elegant ballroom on the ship while you’re there. Because after you see what York and this company has achieved with this musical, you’ll shout HALLAJAH and AMEN!!
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