Anything Goes may be scaled down to fit the 339-seat Laurence Welk Resort Theatre, but no entertainment value has been stinted in bringing the perennial 1930s favorite to crowd-pleasing life at the Welk. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a pizzazzier Anything Goes than the one now being staged down Escondido way.
Mind you, 1934’s Anything Goes dates back to Broadway’s pre-Oklahoma! days, an era when pretty much all that was required to create a hit musical was a a dozen or so songs (preferably by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George & Ira Gershwin, or Rodgers & Hart) and some lively dance numbers (the kind that Busby Berkeley was creating both in New York and in Hollywood). As for plot, three-dimensional characters, political correctness, or any trace of the dramatic, well who needed those so long as a show’s zany characters made you laugh?
“It’s De-Lovely,” “Friendship,” “I Get A Kick Out Of You,” “All Through The Night,” “You’re The Top,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” and the title song are just seven of the Cole Porter classics featured in Anything Goes’ Broadway debut, with “Take Me Back To Manhattan” and “Let’s Misbehave” added for the 1962 revival version, which the Welk is presenting under the inspired direction of Anything Goes vet Ray Limon.
As for storyline, it’s not that there isn’t one. There are, in fact, quite a few plot threads serving to tie the abovementioned songs together, though it’s still mostly about the music and dance. Still, I can’t recall another musical with more madcap screwball, slapstick, and farcical fun and laughs—all of them aboard the S.S. America, bound for England from New York City.
Among those on the America are rising Wall Street whiz Billy Crocker (Joshua Carr), on board to drop off the passport his boss Elisha J. Whitney (Ken Salzman) has left behind; wealthy young debutante Hope Harcourt (Rachel Davis), traveling with her hoity-toity society mom Evangeline (Robin LaValley) and Mrs. Harcourt’s pet pooch (the cutest Chihuahua since Elle Wood’s bruiser); Hope’s English fiancé Sir Evelyn Oakleigh (RC Sands), fascinated by all things American, particularly our slang; and evangelist-turned-nightclub chantoozie Reno Sweeney (Natalie Nucci), accompanied by her quartet of showgirl Angels: Charity (Jeni Baker), Chastity (Tara Shoemaker); Purity (Lindsay Kristine Anderson), and Virtue (Allyson Spiegelman).
Also on board are Public Enemy Number 13, aka Moonface Martin (Shaun Leslie Thomas), in disguise as a man of the cloth, and his bleach-blonde girlie-girl Bonnie (April Henry).
Somehow or other, Billy ends up spending the first part of the cruise impersonating Public Enemy Number One, before later pretending to be a sailor or imitating Bette Davis as a flirtatious matron or forgoing any pretense of political correctness as a bamboo-hatted Chinese, all the while trying to convince Hope to ditch her fuddy-duddy of a fiancé for the man she once shared a midnight kiss with in Central Park, i.e. our handsome hero Billy Crocker himself.
Book writers Guy Bolton, P.G. Wodehouse, Anna Crouse, and Howard Lindsay need only the slightest of pretexts to introduce one Cole Porter hit after another. For example, the “kick” Reno declares she gets whenever she sees her friend and fan Billy launches her into “I Get A Kick Out Of You” not long after the duo have avowed their mutual admiration in “You’re The Top,” the two songs featuring some of the cleverest, wittiest, raciest Cole Porter lyrics ever. (“Some get a kick from cocaine. I’m sure that if I took even one sniff, that would bore me terrifically too.” “You’re romance. You’re the steppes of Russia. You’re the pants on a Roxy usher.”) Reno’s and Moonface’s offer to help Billy win Hope’s hand is all that’s necessary for the three of them to join voices in a salute to “Friendship.” (“When other friendships have been forgit, ours will still be it.”) And probably the only reason Anything Goes’ writers made Reno a former evangelist is to give her a reason to belt out the show-stopping gospel hymn “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.”
In the grand tradition of the best of British, French, and American farce, Anything Goes features wild-and-crazy situations, disguises and mistaken identity, high-brow and low-brow humor, physical comedy, and entrances and exits executed with razor-sharp timing.
All of this is told in classic 1930s screwball fashion, with a ballsy female lead, fast-paced repartee, and a plot revolving around the pursuit of love with an eye towards marriage, which just about every major character finds over the course of a week at sea.
Director Limon and an all-around topnotch cast give us an Anything Goes in classic burlesque mode, with plenty of slapstick and a bit of Looney Tunes thrown in for good measure, and since every single cast member is on the same artistic page, this highly stylized approach works to perfection on the Welk stage.
And what an amazing cast of triple-threats have joined forces to entertain Welk audiences over the next several months.
Nucci follows her star turn as Velma Kelly in last year’s Chicago with an equally pizzazzy Reno Sweeney, proving herself not only a delightful comedienne but tiptop in the dance department and silky smooth in her vocals. Opposite Nucci (and returning to the Welk stage for the first time in sixteen years) is the eternally boyish Carr, giving us a song-and-dance Billy in classic Bobby Van mode.
There aren’t three more brilliant musical theater performers than those now filling the shoes of Moonface, Lord Evelyn, and Mrs. Harcourt, a trio of crackerjack character actors who can take any part and make it indelibly his or her own. Thomas’s Moonface is every bit as inspired as were his previous Welk turns as Luther Billis, Amos Hart, and Hairspray’s Male Authority Figure. Sands, who stole every Moonface scene in Candlelight Pavilion’s Anything Goes last year, becomes quite possibly the most outrageously funny Evelyn ever. As for Mrs. Harcourt, LaValley takes a throw-away part and turns it into another showcase for her unique comedic gifts.
As she did at Candlelight, Davis makes for a lovely, silver-voiced Hope, and Salzman has great fun with fuddy-duddy Whitney. As for Reno’s acolytes, the Angels’ clingy gowns and tappy high heels are more than ably filled by the glamorous and talented Anderson, Baker, Shoemaker, and Spiegelman.
Completing the splendid Welk cast are Charles Feuerstine (Captain), Kevin McDonald (Ching), Paul Stine (Ling), Christopher Valentine (Purser), and E.Y. Washington (Dobson) as assorted sailors and passengers in costume change after costume change.
Music director Justin Gray not only elicits fine vocal performances all-around, but also conducts the production’s live five-piece orchestra, sounding like twice as many musicians thanks to the talents of Mark Margolies (reeds), Mike Masessa (drums, percussion), Elizabeth Meeker (trumpet), Andy Ingersoll (keyboard), and Gray himself (piano).
Martin Willis Raymondo has quite niftily scaled down the S.S. American to fit the Welk stage, his scenic design expertly lit by Jennifer Edwards, with costume designer/coordinator Janet Pticher earning top marks for her 1930s fashions (provided by Theatre Company, Upland). Sound designer Patrick Hoyny and prop designer Beverly George complete the topnotch Welk design team.
Anything goes is produced by theater manager Carr. Edwards is assistant theater manager. Doug Davis is technical director.
Though the 1930s brought us other pre-Rodgers & Hammerstein treats like The Band Wagon, On Your Toes, Babes In Arms, and The Boys From Syracuse, none holds up nearly as well as Anything Goes, proof positive of which is provided by this could-hardly-be-better revival, one which more than justifies a drive down south to the Welk.
The Welk Theater, 8860 Lawrence Welk Dr, Escondido.
January 4, 2014
Photos: Ken Jacques Photography