Sunday, May 31, 2015

Anything Goes opens as the SS Success in Melbourne

It was smooth sailing all the way from New York to England in smashing, loud 'n' clear style and entertainment as the SS American set sail in Opera Australia and John Frost's new production of Cole Porter's 1934 zany musical Anything Goes, originally produced by Lincoln Centre Theatre.

Caroline O'Connor and company
Seen in preview and featuring a shipshape cast of superlative Aussie-blooded (just about), Yankee-accented musical theatre talent, Anything Goes' tide of recognisably colourful tunes washed the night with sparkling freshness. Songs like "I get a kick out of you", "You're the top", "Friendship", "Blow, Gabriel, blow" and of course "Anything goes" all got topnotch treatment and the stagecraft to match.

Director Dean Bryant has fished Cole Porter's music and lyrics - based on a bevy of book writers -and found every ounce of life there is to catch then blended it with a role-perfect cast who conveyed the madcap story with streamlined ease and clear, crisp diction. Andrew Hallsworth's choreography worked a stunning treat as the ensemble danced and tapped away in an energetic spectacle that Melbourne seemed to be hungry for.

Act 1 speedily raised the background on its shipload of characters and finished with an adrenaline-inducing tour-de-tap-force in "Anything goes". Interval happily passed quickly but Act 2 sadly slips away all too fast with riveting, non-stop entertainment reaching a finale that came with unexpected brilliance. Only a few micro-moments of emptiness occasionally disrupt scene shifts, mainly limited to Act 1 but which will surely be ironed out as the season gets underway.

Less than 18 months after its premiere at New York's Alvin Theatre in 1934, Anything Goes opened in Sydney with some prudish criticism. One critic advised, 'Men should think twice before bringing their wives...' (Smith's Weekly). In a sign of the times we live in, it appeared that wives have thought twice before bringing their men.

On the deck and in the cabins of the SS American, Anything Goes takes a lighthearted shot with backhanded slapstick speed on all fronts - prim and proper societal expectations and paradoxes, Christian evangelical fervour and Chinese honour are all jabbed at with giggle-inducing harmlessness in a world where money might just about buy anything.

In a narrative bursting with an endearingly raunchy overtone, the jokes are dusty and daggy but their delivery was slung with irresistible charm and bite. Even today, an audience can LOL while the narrative still pokes mullock at manners.

C Lyon, T McKenney, C Duncan, J Bartholomew and A Rathgeber
As Reno Sweeney, Caroline O'Connor came close to stealing the night - it might be show-destroying if she had - with a performance that showcased all the attributes of musical comedy in song and dance...and a measure of drink. In hairstyle, costume and personality, O'Connor's Reno epitomises the animated character of the at times girlishly coy but unashamedly sexualised, saucy and independent-minded Betty Boop with striking effect. Totally loveable!

O'Connor intensifies the drama and oils all the interconnected shenanigans onboard with unedited wit, her delightfully raspy-edged vocal line and Reno's multifarious attributes with breezily good cheer. Working her magic through the entire  show, her energy spun its chemistry with everyone on stage, particularly in the racy evangelical showgirl display with the company in Act 2's "Blow, Gabriel, blow".

Todd McKenney's nerdy, dandy-daubed Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, was so full of characterful aplomb that I forgot it was he who was starring on stage. McKenney's comic credentials shone when, dressed in bathrobe, he captures the comedy of Oakleigh's muddling of idioms and inability to figure out Reno was making all sorts of eyes - and other parts - at him, in the privacy of his cabin, with flying colours.

Alex Rathgeber left a grand impression as the young Wall Street rookie and stowaway, Billy Crocker, giving bucket-loads of appeal to his persistence and optimistic fervour coupled with charming good looks. As Billy slips into various disguises, desperate to take the hand in marriage of a girl's heart he has already won but who is engaged to Oakleigh, Rathgeber gave all with his rich, warm and suave vocal style.

High society girl Hope Harcourt, his hearts's desire, was demurely and sweetly portrayed by Clare Lyon, whose character develops with forthright maturity as she finally decides to break the shackles of her arranged marriage to Oakleigh.

Deborah Krizak and Wayne Scott Kermond
Gerry Connolly minced and manoeuvred marvellously as the  Captain. Deborah Krizak as Erma rendered "Buddy beware" in sassy stellar style with her hot-blooded sailors. Carmen Duncan's society climbing Mrs Harcourt and Bartholomew John as the dignified Elisha Whitney created the chemistry to convince their destinies are bound and a special mention goes to Josh Gates for his constantly wild weaving ways across the ship and a noticeably handsome voice as the can-do, most obliging young Purser.

Saving just about the best to last, I hadn't forgotten Wayne Scott Kermond's champion performance as Moonface Martin or Public Enemy #13. Oozing with charismatic criminality, Kermond's antics, formidable timing and colourful text interpretation came with punchy delivery, culminating with his biggest moment in Act 2's "Be like the bluebird".

And have I not said anything about the superb razzed-dazzle music that emanated from the upper deck of the by now SS Success as she finally sights England? It must be said musical director and conductor Peter Casey, with his 16-piece band, plied the Atlantic with an especially rich treasure of orchestral colour - proud, polished and secure - in an unforgettably fine display.

While set adaptation by Dale Ferguson satisfied, minus portholes and sleek horizontal lines of the Art Deco era it disappointingly screams neither luxury liner nor inspired geometry and perspective. Fortunately nautical costuming and period elegance enliven the ship's deck splendidly. Matt Scott's lighting dapples the voyage with evocative beauty and Michael Waters' sound design is audibly sharp.

On its maiden journey on the Princess Theatre stage not even the weeniest leak seemed to hamper this SS Success.

Photographs by Jeff Busby