By Bill Hirschman
It would be facile, unfair and, in fact, inaccurate to compare the soggy national tour of the sea-borne Anything Goes to the Titanic, the Lusitania or even the Marie Celeste. But if there ever was proof that Broward Center audiences will give a standing ovation to anything, it was the opening night Tuesday of a pallid production so lackluster that someone should have thrown a life preserver at it.
Seriously, it is hard to imagine that this scaled back watered down non-Equity version is based on the 2011 edition that won the Best Revival Tony Award and ran for more than 500 performances. It has the Cole Porter songs from the 1934 premiere and others added when the script was overhauled by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman in 1987.
While this second national tour produced by NETworks Presentations isn’t terrible or even amateurish, there are only a few comparatively if transient bright spots. But you can see why Broadway Across Fort Lauderdale left Anything Goes to close out the season when most of the snowbirds had departed, especially since so much of the rest of the tour offerings were surprisingly vibrant.
The entire production felt muted like it was being viewed through a fogbank. Very few people in the cast had any pizzazz or verve in a show that lives and dies on those qualities. The show limped along more than an hour before there was much electricity generated and that came in the first act finale. That rendition of the title song was only respectably engaging and far from the rousing showstopper that it is capable of being. Throughout, lines were spoken by some folks as if they were lazing their way through the script. As a result, the solid burlesque dialogue rarely did better than raise giggles and a couple of guffaws.
The current iteration is meant to be a tongue-in-cheek homage to those frothy musicals of the 1930s that featured a mindless comedy plot delivered by former vaudevillians and enhanced by a divine catalog of songs – many to become standards – from geniuses such as Porter, Berlin and the Gershwins. The original cemented the stardom of Ethel Merman as the evangelist turned nightclub entertainer Reno Sweeney. The retooled 1987 Tony-winning version starred Patti Lupone in a fiery performance. The 2011 mounting also won the Best Revival Tony and a Best Actress trophy for Sutton Foster.
The story follows the voyage of the S.S. American from New York to London. Budding stockbroker Billy Crocker stows away to woo debutante Hope Harcourt from her fiancé, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh. Also on board as entertainment is the aforementioned firecracker Reno Sweeney, a cross between Aimee Semple McPherson and Texas Guinan; plus Moonface Martin, the hapless Public Enemy No. 13; Elisha Whitney, Billy’s millionaire boss; two Asian immigrants with a taste for gambling; Hope’s social climbing mother; Moonface’s floozy girlfriend Erma; assorted others, and more liquor than Elliot Ness ever found in a Prohibition raid.
The ensuing plot of star-crossed lovers who break into song and dance at the slightest provocation is intentionally a loving pastiche of every cliché in the musical comedy playbook.
This phlegmatic tour is directed and choreographed by Sean McKnight and Jennifer Savelli, both of whom danced in previous productions. According to the Playbill, they “based” their work on the 2011 revival staging by Kathleen Marshall. But the wit, the panache, the knowing ribbing of the show’s dated conventions that marked Ms. Marshall’s work were apparently set adrift in a lifeboat.
Among the serious problems is the casting. No one casts talentless performers. So presumably these folks have skills, even though few are more than a handful of years out of college.
But start with Emma Stratton as Reno. Okay, let’s take a quiz. What doesn’t fit here: Ethel Merman, Patti Lupone, Sutton Foster and Grace Kelly. Stratton has a lovely voice when the sound engineer allows you to hear her and she is drop dead gorgeous like a tall Reese Witherspoon. But whoever allowed her to play Reno as a slumming ice princess ought to be canned. The raucous anarchic life force that the first three ladies named above exuded is totally absent here. She gets four of the best songs Porter ever wrote for a woman with a brassy belt: the title song, “I Get A Kick Out of You,” “You’re The Top” and “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.” All of them come out of her as martini smooth standards, almost subdued numbers when… well, listen to the cast albums. She never cuts loose from that carefully controlled, self-contained persona and there is not a genuine moment in her entire performance.
But it’s not just her. Leading man Brian Krinsky as Billy is emotionally stolid, vocally debatable and doesn’t have the crucial innate charisma of his predecessors such as the original William Gaxton, Hal Linden, John Barrowman and Howard McGillin.
Some of the supporting players show signs of life, but not enough to rescue this craft: Richard Lindenfelzer as the English blueblood who exposes some gypsy in his soul, Mychal Phillips as the floozy Erma and Rachelle Rose Clark as Hope.
Frankly, we recast this show locally a lot better on the drive home without much thinking: Laura Hodos as Reno (that would be worth a local revival right there), Shane Tanner or Mike Westrich or any leading man at Slow Burn as Billy, Ken Clement as Moonface or Billy’s boss, Barbara Bradshaw as Hope’s mother, Leah Sessa as Hope or Erma, Noah Levine or Clay Cartland as Lord Evelyn, on and on.
Once again with these cut-rate tours, the orchestra was slimmed down to nine musicians, one of whom played the pre-programmed M-Audio Axiom synthesizer/sound sampler. Even with three reeds and three brass, the music sounded thin.
And the sound: A critic unfamiliar with the score asked me at intermission whether I was having trouble hearing or understanding the lyrics. Yes, I told him, I was having trouble hearing let alone understanding the lyrics – and I knew most of them by heart. Some of this can be blamed on hiring singers missing power in the upper or lower ranges, but some was just poor sound quality.
If anyone thinks we’re being too hard, listen to a cast album of the show – any of the cast albums or YouTube videos – and compare the electrical charge coming off the grooves and megabytes to what was on stage at the Broward Center.
Anything Goes runs through May 17 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts as part of the Broadway Across America-Fort Lauderdale series, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Performances are 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time two hours, 30 minutes including one intermission. Tickets approximately $40 – $159. For more information, call (954) 462-0222 or visit BrowardCenter.org.