“ Theatre Royal Brighton, New Road, Brighton, BN1 1SD. Box Office: (01273) 328488. „
I'm not totally surprised that no one wrote about this musical. Frankly, I can see how it might not have been the most appealing of productions. Firstly, I'm sure that Londoner's probably see less plays and musicals than out-of-towners (don't we all miss the best parts of the cities we live in?), and those visiting from other parts of the UK might want something more contemporary. I'm sure as well, that even the foreign visitors are after much the same. And yet, this musical does seem to be enjoying its fair share of popularity. Certainly the London Time Out gave it good reviews, and the house was full when we saw it at the Drury Lane Theater. But since no one else had the opportunity to review this musical, I perhaps I should be the one to correct this oversight. And just in case you did miss this boat, and it calls into port again, perhaps this review will help you decide if you should make the effort to come on board, or not. Here's what I thought of this production:
This is an old musical, with the songs totally written by Cole Porter way back in the 30s. It was a huge hit at the time, probably because of the relative cleverness of the plot, with the story written by Guy Bolton, P.G. Wodehouse, Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse. I'm afraid you'll only recognize the second writer in the list here (from the Jeeves and Wooster books, no doubt), but no matter - I'm sure that's enough to give you an idea of the quality of the dialogue.
"Anything Goes" first opened in the US at the Alvin Theatre (in New York) on November 21, 1934 and turned out to be the fourth longest running musical of the 30s. In 1987, Timothy Crouse and John Weidman revived it, with their revised book, at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre with Patti LuPone in the leading role. There was also a 1936 screen version, which starred Ethel Merman and Bing Crosby.
The latest UK version is a similar production to that which was on the London stages in 1989. This has now been at the Drury Lane Theater since this past October, and premiered only the previous December at the National's Olivier Theater. So, this isn't a new musical, and people might not find a good reason to flock to it - but I must assure you that they would be all wrong, and here's why!
The totally absurd story - par for the course for any musical of the 1930s - is simply complex and a tad clever. The whole of the action takes place on a luxury ocean liner between New York and England. There's a businessman on his way to make deals, and his young assistant that is supposed to be staying behind to close the ones he's already started. But the young assistant's love interest is a passenger on the ship, along with her Nuevo poor and recently widowed mother and very rich, royal, British fiancé. But when one of the passengers doesn't show up, the young assistant takes his place. However, the no-show's companions are gangsters running away from the law, and the no-show himself is, apparently none other than the USA's "Public Enemy #1"! Moreover, the ship's main entertainer is apparently in love with the young assistant. Furthermore, the businessman is "hot" for widow mom (she's American, I can't say 'mum' here), and the gangsters are disguising themselves as Christian Missionaries - complete with a pair of reformed Chinese sinners, which they stole from the real missionary who has been arrested in their stead! You should know that all of this comes out in the first 10-15 minutes of the action, so there's no sleeping in the audience, I assure you. Now, for everything to work out to perfection (as it must, in a 30s musical) before the ship calls into its British port, we're in for a bit of a roller-coaster ride of mix-ups, mishaps, romantic interludes and lots of songs and dance numbers. Does that sound like everything including the kitchen sink to you? Well, it certainly is a wild ride, but as the title clearly states "Anything Goes" and in this musical, anything as well as everything certainly does!
On the night of the production I saw, the first line cast were all in place. The main characters and those who played them were:
Elisha Whitney, a tycoon - played by Barrie Ingham
Billy Crocker, a young man from his office - John Barrowman
Reno Sweeney, an evangelist turned nightclub singer - Sally Ann Triplett
Hope Harcourt, a debutante - Mary Stockley
Evangeline Harcourt, her mother - Susan Tracy
Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, a wealthy Englishman - Simon Day
Mooface Martin, a gangster, Martin Marquez
Erma, a moll - Annette McLaughlin
The Captain of the SS American - Paul Grunert
The Purser - David Delve
In addition, there are four girls who play "Reno's Angels", a Nautical Quartet (males) and a whole chorus line of sailors, passengers, journalists and photographers played by members of the company.
From my vantage point (in the eighth row of the main hall, thanks to the half-price ticket booth) it did seem to me that while, for the most part, the cast works wonderfully together, Mr. Barrowman does seem a tad full of himself, and this did cut into the romantic chemistry that we should have felt between Billy and Hope. Apparently, Ms. Stockley doesn't care as much for Mr. Barrowman in real life, as the fictional Hope does for the fictional Billy. But this was the only glitch as far as I could see, and I may be one of the few people who noticed this. In any case, the part of Hope is not the leading female role, but just the romantic interest one. It is the part of Reno that takes that top position, and Ms. Triplett apparently does like Mr. Barrowman, and it shows. Or could it be that Ms. Triplett is the better actress, and so she got the better part, and was able to give us her all, and hide any personal feelings away? Especially since Mr. Barrowman seems to put everything he has into the part, and gave up a performance with such energy that his enthusiasm seems to seep into each line, song and step he's been given, and those positive vibes seem to have infected the whole cast - bar Ms. Stockley. Still, the part of Hope was nicely done, albeit on the aloof side, which is actually needed to a certain extent. You see, Hope is engaged to this Lord, but is secretly in love with Billy, and must try to put Billy off since her marriage to the Lord will correct her family's sad financial situation. Following ones responsibilities instead of ones heart can harden a girl, I guess. But the part of Reno has no such problems, and Ms. Triplett matches Mr. Barrowman's levels of electricity to the smallest iota, and theirs are the parts that are the leads. So, all in all, the cast is as close to perfect as one could ask for, and if you get to see one of the shows that doesn't have understudies substituting for Billy or Reno, you'll be in for a real treat.
What is a 30s musical without dance numbers, right? And this is no exception. Yes, without a doubt you'll be saying 'improbable' when characters like sailors start in with their two-steps and tap shoes, but who cares? Musicals are bound to a specific fantasy world all to themselves - and the ones from the 30s are the ones that invented that fantasy world. If you allow yourself to step inside and suspend your reality, you'll enjoy yourself, despite your internal reality critic. While this isn't a "Busby Berkeley" over-the-top, feathers and foam, high-kicking extravaganza, it certainly is a lively, athletic and artistic show of the old dance styles. What I mean is a large helping of spirited tap dancing (to its highest form), a few dashes of elegant ballroom dancing (a la Fred Astaire, et al) with a generous dollop of jazzy numbers that give the stars and chorus line a chance to show off some fancy jumps, twists and tosses (as in the most jittery of jitter bugs) to make the whole as palatable as possible. Yes, I'm saying it's a feast for the eyes, and I do mean it.
How can one review a musical without talking about the songs? And of course, this musical is no exception in that it has more than its fair share of those. I have to admit that most of the "hits" are in the first half of the show, making the second half seem a tad less bubbly. But because I grew up with a musicals lover (my mother), and one with a fondness for Cole Porter in particular, I knew most of the words to many of the songs before the first strains of the overture began. This caused me to need all of my self control and will power to keep from joining along with the cast at the top of my lungs - something that might not have been a big problem if I was in the upper balcony, but would have caused a stir with our being seated on the eighth row, main floor!
What makes Cole Porter songs so special? I'd have to say it is the sophistication of the lyrics and language - the type of stuff that should thoroughly shame that guy who rhymed "spaghetti" with "already". And while Porter did stretch a rhyme from time to time, at least he did it cleverly. Moreover, Porter seemed to have a touch of the philosopher in him, making many of his lyrics timeless. For example, in the title song, we hear the words "the world has gone mad today / and good's bad today". There's no one who can deny that even 70 years later, this is no less true than it was when it was first written. But it's more than just that. There is a real charm to these songs, as well.
The musical starts out with the song "I Get a Kick Out of You" which caused quite a stir throughout its history. This, because of the line "some get a kick from cocaine", which you can imagine, sounds a tad controversial. In some recorded versions of this song (Frank Senatra, for instance) that line was changed to "some like the perfume from Spain". I was pleased to hear that the original cocaine reference was returned to this song, despite those who may still feel it inappropriate. This, because the next line is "I'm sure that if / I take even one sniff / it would bore me terrifically, too" which is saying that cocaine isn't thrilling at all! And did you notice that rhyme and how the last one came in the middle of the word 'terrifically'? That's very classy and is known in the poetry world as enjambment. Try that one on for size, Mr. Mathers!
Soon after that song, we have a few chorus bits and then straight into "You're the Top", which is a true showcase for Porter's lyrical abilities. The first part goes:
"You're the top! / You're the Colosseum. / You're the top! / You're the Louvre Museum. / You're a melody from a symphony by Strauss / You're a Bendel bonnet, / A Shakespeare's sonnet, / You're Mickey Mouse. / You're the Nile, / You're the Tower of Pisa, / You're the smile on the Mona Lisa / I'm a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop, / But if, baby, I'm the bottom you're the top!"
But that's not all, and this particular song is just filled with amazing references (but I'm not sure what a Bendel bonnet is). Porter's songs in this musical just go from greatness to greatness. Soon after this number we're given a real gem in the form of the song "Friendship". If you take a good look at the whole lyric here, you'll see that these two people who are talking about how their friendship is special, are actually digging at each other and proving that they are far from real friends at all. They start out singing that "If you're ever in a jam, here I am" and end up with things like "If you're ever in a mill and get sawed in half, I won't laugh".
The first act finishes with two great numbers that directly follow "Friendship". These are "It's De-lovely" which is a romantic tune between Billy and Hope, where he tries to convince her to show her true feelings about him. And then, we're given the showstopper "Anything Goes". This is filled with more clever lyrics and lots of jazz and is made into a huge dance piece with tap dancing and athletic feats that will lift you up like a rocket! If the steam from the stage doesn't get you moving, it will certainly keep that luxury ocean liner afloat for a century, at least!
The second act has a few less hits than the first one, but that's where all the action takes place. We still get some great dance numbers, like Reno's "Blow Gabriel Blow" and some that are just fun like the one where the stiff English Lord confesses that he has "The Gypsy in Me". And they bring us safely into port with the finale where we get the recap of "Anything Goes" and "I Get a Kick Out of You". With this kind of a line up, there's no question that you'll be humming to yourself for days afterwards (and running to Google to find all the lyrics you might have missed while having so much fun watching the stage).
Which brings me to the set design. This has been really cleverly done. The designers have left a good part of the stage empty so that all of the dance numbers will have plenty of elbowroom. In order to do that, however, they had to cover the orchestra pit with the thrust cover. With the orchestra pit covered, one wonders where the orchestra is. Well, it's actually on stage BEHIND the cast, in a complex that looks like the upper decks of the boat. This complex turns around and has rotating sides so that they can open up a set of doors and then push out certain bits of scenery to make you feel like you've walked into one of the cabins (we see a total of three different ones during the play), or the nightclub, or the brig! But that's just the bottom half. When the top half turns around, it reveals the orchestra itself.
Sound a bit difficult to understand? Picture a two-tiered wedding cake. The bottom of which rotates separately from the upper one. When the bottom one turns around, doors slide away and from inside the cake, a whole new set comes out. When the top one rotates, you see the orchestra inside. When its first seen, you can see that the bottom tier has a doorway, which allows characters to enter and exit center stage. There are also two sets of stairs to either side of this, which lead to a balcony of sorts, and can rotate along with the bottom tier. What's really fun is to see someone climbing on those stairs while the bottom half rotates to reveal the next scene. This is a very cleverly done set, and one the likes of which I haven't seen in quite a while. Oh, and if you're wondering, the cast can see the conductor on closed circuit television screens placed just below the railings of the first balcony!
I think that the costumes, makeup and hair were all totally amazing as well in this show. One of my pet peeves just didn't show up - the ability to see the personal microphones that they stick into everyone's hair these days. Usually I can see those from the upper balconies, but here, from the 8th row, I only noticed one of them. Good for them on this one. All in all, its an excellently done production.
Why should you have gone to see this musical? Because of the songs? Because of the dance numbers? Because of the sets? Because of the performances? In a word - YES, and I give it the full five stars it deserves. The songs are clever and memorable, the dance numbers lively and a feast for the eyes, the sets are fascinating and the performances - vocally, physically and theatrically - are truly first rate. If you ever get a chance to see this musical, and if what I've said appeals to you, then trust me, you won't want to miss this boat again!
Thanks for reading!
The address of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane is, Catherine Street, London WC2B 5JF, Tube: Covent Garden, Box Office: 020 7494 5000.
The best site I found with information about this musical, links to where you can buy the music, CDs and other things is http://www.imagi-nation.com/moonstruck/albm13.htm or http://tinyurl.com/xu3m (for those who find the first link difficult to copy and paste). At the time, tickets cost between £10-£45, although we got some £35 tickets at the half-price booth.
You can buy a copy of CD of the 2003 London Cast Recording from www.first-night-records.com for only £14.99, and they will send it to you, post free within the UK.
We found this at http://www.officiallondontheatre.co.uk/shows/display/cm/contentId/72347 when we were looking for plays to see in London. Good site, by the way.