Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Lyric Opera’s “Anything Goes” Preserves Spirit of Musical Classic


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Lyric Opera San Diego just opened their 31st season with a production of Cole Porter’s 1934 musical Anything Goes, which despite some flaws manages to preserve the insouciant, “anything goes” spirit Porter and his writers — P. G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse — put into it way back when. It’s running through October 11 at the Birch North Park Theatre, 2891 University Avenue in North Park, and is well worth seeing if what you want from a theatrical evening is a light soufflé that doesn’t make much sense plot-wise but offers good voices singing some of the greatest pop songs ever written.

Anything Goes was born out of Depression-driven desperation — a history Lyric Opera director Leon Natker cited in their decision to do it in the wake of America’s biggest economic meltdown since then. Producer Vinton Freedley had just broken up his professional partnership with Alex Aarons following the box-office failure of George Gershwin’s last stage musical, Pardon My English, in 1933. For his first solo production he tapped the services of Porter, Wodehouse and Bolton, all of whom were in Europe at the time — and because Wodehouse didn’t want to be in England at the time and Bolton didn’t want to visit him in Paris, they had to pick a northern French beach resort town to meet and work out the show.

At that stage the piece was called Hard to Get and featured a spectacular climax — a fake bomb thrown overboard to avert an explosion aboard the ocean liner on which the bulk of it took place. Then, just two days before rehearsals were supposed to begin, a real ocean liner, the S.S. Morro Castle, burst into flame off the New Jersey coast, killing between 125 and 180 people. All of a sudden, the bomb-on-board plot device seemed totally out of place for a light, frothy musical designed to make people feel good. But producer Freedley had already built the set of the ship, and he’d signed his stars — William Gaxton, Ethel Merman and Victor Moore — so Lindsay and Crouse were brought in to whip up a script that would fit Porter’s songs, incorporate those performers and take place at sea.

What they came up with was a wild tale about Reno Sweeney, a disgraced former evangelist who holds forth at a Broadway nightclub and sings with a group of four backup singers called her “Angels.” Reno is in love with Billy Crocker, personal assistant to industrialist Elisha J. Whitney. But Billy only has eyes for Hope Harcourt, daughter of Mrs. Wadsworth T. Harcourt. Hope loves Billy, too, but her mother has decided to replenish the family fortunes by marrying her off to British aristocrat Sir Evelyn Oakleigh. Desperate to get on board the ocean liner S.S. America before it sails to England so he can be with the other principals and try to pull Hope away from her fiancé, Billy gets a ticket and passport from Moonface Martin, a hapless gangster referred to as “Public Enemy No. 13.” They were supposed to be used by “Snake Eyes” Johnson, Public Enemy No. 1, but he was arrested before the boat sailed and Moonface gets himself and Billy on board by disguising himself as a priest — and getting a real priest arrested in the process.

Once the liner sails, Billy adopts a series of disguises — including passing himself off as a sailor — to try to get close to Hope. Eventually he’s “outed” as Public Enemy No. 1, but instead of being arrested he’s hailed and fêted at an on-board party by a ship’s staff desperate for any kind of celebrity on board. Hope, however, is repelled by his antics, so he reveals his true identity — and once the ship’s staff realize he isn’t a famous gangster, then he gets arrested. It all ends happily, of course, with Billy and Hope paired off, as are Reno and Sir Evelyn (Billy asked Reno to seduce him to get him away from Hope, and she succeeded better than he expected), while Billy’s employer, Whitney, ends up with Hope’s mother.

As usual with a musical of this vintage, the story is merely an excuse to cue the songs — and the songs are some of Porter’s best. Indeed, there are a few more of Porter’s most famous songs in this version than there are in the original, because the version Lyric Opera produced is a revision from 1962 that replaced some of the less-known Anything Goes songs with more famous ones from other Porter scores both earlier (“Let’s Misbehave” from his 1928 breakthrough show Paris) and later (“It’s De-Lovely” from Porter’s next musical, Red, Hot and Blue!; and “Friendship” from Du Barry Was a Lady). One would think the score of Anything Goes itself would have enough well-loved Porter songs to satisfy; three of the songs Porter wrote for it (“Anything Goes,” “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “You’re the Top” — four if you count “Easy to Love,” which was cut from the score in rehearsals because William Gaxton couldn’t sing it but was added to a 1987 Broadway revival) became standards and two others (“Blow, Gabriel, Blow” and “All Through the Night”), though less known today, were hits at the time.

But since Porter was still alive in 1962 and signed off on the revision, the folks in charge at Lyric Opera justified performing the revised version on the ground that “this was his final statement on the show … Cole Porter’s last collaboration on one of his most successful scores.” It’s still a quite charming show, though given the company’s stated rationale for producing Anything Goes in the first place — “If we don’t save these great American musical theatre masterworks for future performers and audiences, we will be losing an important part of our American artistic heritage” — it would have been nice to hear something closer to what played on Broadway in 1934 than what got revived in 1962. (Admittedly, that may not have been possible; to get the right to produce the show Lyric Opera had to deal with the Tams-Witmark music publishing company, and such organizations are notoriously tetchy about attempts to alter familiar performing versions. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if the 1962 revision was the only one they would let Lyric Opera perform legally.)

Fortunately, the show we do get at Lyric Opera is a lot of fun. Next to the Porter score itself, the best aspect of Lyric Opera’s Anything Goes is the finely honed ensemble tap dancing director/choreographer David Brannen got out of his cast, especially his chorus. Conductor Chris Thompson, though leading a reduced version of the score that omits strings, achieves a credible 1934 sound (remember that this show premiered just a year before Benny Goodman’s hit recording of Jelly Roll Morton’s “King Porter Stomp” launched the swing era), though even eight pieces turns out to be a bit too loud for some of the singers to overcome and be heard. As much money, energy and tender loving care as Lyric Opera San Diego and their benefactors have put into restoring the Birch North Park Theatre, it was still designed as a movie house in the early days of sound film (it opened in 1929) and their sound designers haven’t quite tamed the big expanse of acoustical space their performers are expected to fill.

As Reno Sweeney, Debra Wanger has the formidable task of filling the leather lungs of the role’s creator, Ethel Merman. Her voice is fine and musical, it’s got the right brassy timbre, and in the dialogue scenes she’s got the full measure of the show’s only multidimensional character. But she’s just not loud enough. Yes, Merman sometimes seemed to sacrifice all other aspects of singing — tone, pitch, phrasing — on the altar of sheer volume (though when she recorded “I Get a Kick out of You” in 1934 her voice was considerably less musclebound than it got later), and I can appreciate Wanger not wanting to shred her vocal cords to get that Merman sound, but if they couldn’t make her thrillingly loud under her own power they should have miked her.

As Billy Crocker, Jordan Miller is properly rambunctious and insouciant in his big numbers with Reno, “You’re the Top” and the interpolated “Friendship,” and he rises to the occasion for the big stentorian ballad, “All Through the Night.” He’s also a subtle comedian who pulls off the disguise scenes amusingly. Laura Bueno, who played the title role in Lyric Opera’s 2007 production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, suffers the most from the alterations in the score — Hope loses her big featured number from the 1934 original, “The Gypsy in Me,” a song Bueno could have done full justice to — though she does get half of the duet on “It’s De-Lovely” as a consolation prize. Anthony Ballard’s Sir Evelyn Oakleigh is a charming doofus performance, pretty clearly patterned on Frank Morgan’s title role in the film The Wizard of Oz, and Shirley Giltner as Moonface’s hard-boiled girlfriend Bonnie sometimes threatens to take the limelight away from Wanger in the tough-broad department.

Originally, Jimmy Ferraro — Sancho Panza in the company’s production of Man of La Mancha — was supposed to play the key comic role of Moonface Martin, but he had to drop out of the production and was replaced by Lyric Opera’s veteran artistic director, J. Sherwood Montgomery. He’s a hard worker who’s been one of the driving forces behind this company, and in this production he’s the set designer as well as one of the stars, but he’s also a dreadful ham. To his credit, he does restrain himself a bit in this role (and the person who played Moonface originally, whiny-voiced comedian Victor Moore, wasn’t all that great either), and his song “Be Like the Bluebird” has a certain charm. The rest of the cast is quite fine — particularly Morgan Thomas Hollingsworth in the small but strong role of Bishop Henry T. Dobson, the real clergyman Moonface gets arrested in his place — and the chorus is first-rate.

J. Sherwood Montgomery deserves compliments as set designer; he’s constructed a credible-looking ocean liner that takes full advantage of the theatre’s stage and easily converts to all the locations required. (One practical consideration in favor of the 1962 version of the show was that, by moving “I Get a Kick out of You” from Reno’s nightclub in New York to the ship itself, it eliminated the need for an extra set.) Pam Stompoly-Erickson’s costumes and makeup adequately evoke the period — though, like Porter himself, she seems more turned on by the raffish demi-monde characters like Reno and Moonface than by the romantic leads. Matthew Novotny lights it all so you can see what’s going on, and as director Brannen keeps the pace lively and expertly cues the songs.

Though one could have wished for a more textually authentic performing version and a sound balance that would have made Porter’s brilliant lyrics easier to hear, for the most part Lyric Opera San Diego has done right by Anything Goes. It’s a show that holds up well and leaves you walking out of the theatre humming the songs and smiling.

The remaining performances of Lyric Opera San Diego’s production of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes are Thursday, October 8; Friday, October 9; and Saturday, October 10, at 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, October 11, at 2:30 p.m.; at the Birch North Park Theatre, 2891 University Avenue in North Park. For tickets or more information, please call (619) 231-5714 or visit www.lyricoperasandiego.com on the Web.