Cole Porter’s nautical romantic musical Anything Goes is still de-lovely in Merry-Go-Round’s season opener
Not a chestnut, not a war horse, not even an evergreen but solid gold. Cole Porter’s Anything Goes might be just about the oldest Broadway musical regularly revived (excepting the lesser No, No, Nanette), but it does not wear out its welcome. Consider that right now the current Broadway revival is one of the White Way’s hottest tickets. Only about a halfdozen shows are of its rank. (Don’t ask me for the list, but two others are West Side Story and Gypsy.)
Any revival, however, has to find a new angle to keep the thing fresh. Over at Auburn’s Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, director Ed Sayles, always a careful man in casting, makes all the difference with three casting choices, two proven favorites from recent summers and the return of a local boy made good.
More than any other golden age musical, Anything Goes has an extraordinarily fluid book. Audiences may recall a song sung by character A in one production but it is assigned to character D in another. This is the result of a four-person collaboration on the original version as well as 70 years of tinkering, some of it to accommodate changing tastes and values. Just as the songs, such as “I Get a Kick Out of You,” may be sung by different characters at different times, so, too, the on-stage dynamics shift with the casting.
In the original, klaxon-voiced Ethel Merman as the evangelist-in-show-business Reno Sweeney famously dominated the action. Golden-tressed Julie Cardia (fondly remembered as the title character in MGR’s The Drowsy Chaperone last summer) keeps Reno strong, but the returned local boy, Todd Lattimore, pulls more attention to the male ingenue, Billy Crocker. A tall, lithe dancer-comedian, Lattimore, son of a prominent Auburn family, started his career at Merry-Go-Round 26 years ago as a Siamese boy with one line in The King and I. Since then he has gone on to Broadway fame and fortune in the likes of 42nd Street and La Cage aux Folles. Unusual in a repertory company, his entrance invites a smattering of applause, but he’s worth it.
Lattimore’s Billy Crocker is a Wall Street flunky buffeted by threats from every direction. Before boarding a ship headed for England, Billy is violently smitten with an angelic and inaccessible debutante, Hope Harcourt (Jenny Long), who’s engaged to a twit of an English aristocrat, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (James Beaman). Before boarding Billy was supposed to have sold shares owned by his boss, Elisha Whitney (Brian Runbeck), a tippling Yalie who consumes spectacular quantities of booze and is virtually blind with his glasses off (hint-hint).
Whereas other Billys have exuded desperation, the Sayles-Lattimore Billy Crocker is a resilient go-getter, not unlike silent comedian Harold Lloyd, ready to adapt any impersonation, suffer any humiliation, to get to the goal, which is Hope (and his Wall Street job). It’s good to keep Lattimore in mind if you ever see either of the two miserable movie adaptations, 1936 and 1956, in which a somnolent Bing Crosby delivers about 15 percent of the energy. A silver-voiced tenor, Lattimore comes off best with the famous Porter wit, like the sparkling duet “You’re the Top” with Reno and the gossamer “Easy to Love.” He sounds less at home with the romantic “All Through the Night.”
Although Anything Goes looks from a distance to be as fluffy a show as ever written, the host of people writing and rewriting it over the decades entertain two serious themes: class and celebrity. Take the case of Reno Sweeney, based on the real-life Aimee Semple McPherson, a showy preacher exposed as a sinner who appealed to worshippers from the wrong side of the track. When the coarse, unglamorous Merman sang Reno she was manifestly not of the same class as Yale boys Crocker, Whitney and composer Porter. Over the years there’s been a tendency to cast con ventional cuties as Reno, which upsets the dynamic. If Reno is so sweet, why is Billy holding out for Hope?
Sayles and Julie Cardia handle this with graceful tact. Cardia has the requisite brass in her voice for all the big numbers, “I Get a Kick Out of You,” the title tune, and the two big duets, “You’re the Top” with Billy and “Friendship” with the male, comic second lead, Moonface Martin (Bruce Warren). Up close Cardia’s Reno turns out to be peachesand-cream eye candy, like a slightly older Amy Adams. That “slightly” is what makes the difference that explains why Reno is a plausible love interest who sets her sights on Hope’s slightly older fiance, Lord Evelyn.
In most versions of Anything Goes, the role of Hope is unrewarding, the beautiful girl in the cast who doesn’t have much to do. Jenny Long as Hope, promoted from supporting roles in Drowsy Chaperone and A Chorus Line, strides with the regal carriage of a young lady of the right class, and gets two elegant numbers, the duet “It’s De-Lovely” and the wistful solo, “Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye,” not added to the score until 1987.
Sayles’ third shaping casting choice is to put corpulent, rubber-faced Bruce Warren as Public Enemy No. 13, Moonface Martin. Anything Goes premiered the year John Dillinger was shot and FBI rankings made the front pages. Shipboard passengers, confined for days, craved somebody, anybody, famous. An Ithaca College graduate with extensive national credits, Warren has become a company favorite over several summers and is arguably the best Moonface ever seen in these parts. Comic bits like several impersonations or stealing Elisha’s glasses, remembered as yawns in previous productions, generate blazing streaks of sparks here. He even gets mileage out of the show’s weakest song, “Be Like the Blue Bird,” often dropped elsewhere. It’s fitting that Warren’s Moonface should share the duet “Friendship” with Reno, assigned to Billy in decades past.
The role of Moonface’s moll Erma, played by Kimberly Burns, is anything but a throwaway. Burns has been a lead in previous summers and is a two-time Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) Award nominee and always asserts her presence with mordant wisecracks. Her moment to steal the scene comes in the last 15 minutes with “Buddie, Beware,” which was assigned to Reno in the original production. Here it becomes a dance production number, under the guidance of choreographer Lori Leshner, who has Burns roll crossways over the prone male chorus without ever skipping a beat. This comes just after the other second-act scene stealer in which Lord Evelyn warbles “The Gypsy in Me” (sometimes assigned to Hope) while revealing family secrets and performing a tantalizing striptease, down to the bare chest.
Production standards remain first class as Merry-Go-Round Playhouse readies itself to launch the Finger Lakes Musical Theater Festival, drawing national audiences. Musical director Corinne Aquilina’s guidance of the nine-player ensemble puts bounce in the syncopation. Czerton Lim’s rotating set gives us the deck one moment, alternating with staterooms and the brig. Lighting director Steve TenEyck nicely shapes space and mood. And Garth Dunbar’s costumes give us society people, especially Mrs. Harcourt (Jane Willingham), who look classier than anyone did in 1934.
This production runs through June 22. See Times Table for information.