On my way in to the Moonlight Amphitheatre last week, I saw a reminder of what live theater is all about: pre-show excitement. Critics can overlook the obvious. For us, especially after a long summer of theater, the evening’s just another opening, another show: go with hope; wait and see. But people tailgating in the parking lot at the Moonlight, or settling into their seats or lawn chairs, were about to see a musical! Colorful costumes and lighting, splashy dance numbers, spectacle and song. Not only that, it’s Anything Goes, with some of Cole Porter’s biggest hits: “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “You’re the Top” among them.
On my way out to the parking lot, after an evening with the Master, I heard something you don’t often hear after a musical these days: practically everyone humming or singing one of the tunes — the title song most of all.
“In olden days a glimpse of stocking/ Was looked on as something shocking,/ But now, God knows,/ Anything goes.”
Or, “Good authors, too, who once knew better words/ Now only use four-letter words/ Writing prose,/ Anything goes.”
Wait. Time out. Go back and listen to the o’s in those lines. I haven’t counted them, but at least two-thirds of the words must have at least one; and Porter goes zone bonkers with “good authors, too, who once knew,” etc. — not only the o’s but his genius for syncopation.
Porter called his lyrics “brittle, bright poesy.” Often overlooked are the song and the musical’s theme: times have changed. What once shocked, like that glimpsed stocking, no longer does. Nowadays, anything goes. As proof he offers a cruise on the S.S. America, sailing from New York to England in 1934. By the time the posh ocean liner nears the white cliffs of Dover, those on top have tumbled, and those on the bottom — even Public Enemy #13 — have risen.
Billy Crocker, a “broken down [Wall Street] broker” did a dumb thing. He fell in love with Hope Harcourt. That wasn’t dumb; that was his heart making the leap of faith. But she’s a debutante, and although they shared a moment together, now she’s engaged to Evelyn Oakleigh — that’s Lord Evelyn of the stratospherically beaucoup-bucked Oakleighs.
But, come on. Anything goes, right? So Billy sneaks onboard and buys a ticket from Moonface Martin (Public Enemy #13 dressed as a priest). Billy dons various disguises and wins his Hope. So do Reno Sweeney, “New York’s most notorious evangelist” (she has lapsed), Lord Evelyn, and just about everyone else. They drop all pretensions toward social class — which the Depression caused many to do back in the States — and become equals, at least until the ship docks at Southampton.
The original book, by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse, had numerous topical gags and a shipwreck. When the S.S. Morro Castle sank in September, 1934, the script needed revision, and the authors weren’t available. The text has been revised since, at least twice, maybe more. In this new version, by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman, the story still ping-pongs about like a canoe in a headwind. It added two songs from Porter’s other works — “It’s De-Lovely” and “Friendship” — but could have done without stereotyping two Chinese passengers.
What this version does (and possibly director/choreographer Jon Engstrom’s involved here), whenever possible, is turn the musical into a Marx Brothers movie. Sight gags and verbal shtick — everything but Harpo’s honker — recall Duck Soup (1933), A Night at the Opera (1935), and A Day at the Races (1937), from the same era.
And the songs take it from there. For some of the biggies, Porter wrote lead-ins: yadda-yadda, yadda-yadda, then a pause, then, “I...get no kick...from champagne,” followed by a palpable gasp from the house seats, punctuated with intermittent “Ohs!” And the S.S. America sails into Porterland, a place so sacred, the faithful feel like removing their shoes.
On opening night, Tracy Lore began too tentative as Reno Sweeney and could have sung “I Get a Kick Out of You” more as a torch song. Lore grew into the role and did full, brassy justice to “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” Porter’s revivalist show-stopper (“Come on you scamps, get up you sinners!/ You’re all too full of expensive dinners”). As did an unnamed trumpet player blowing major-league licks in Kenneth Gammie’s rock-solid orchestra.
Whether dancing up a storm or singing “Easy to Love” and “All Through the Night,” multitalented Jeffrey Scott Parsons scored throughout as the indomitable Billy Crocker. As Hope, Courtney Fero sang with a bell-clear soprano, and her duet with Parsons was, well, “De-Lovely.”
In one of the show’s many flip-flops, since few celebrities came onboard, and the luxury liner advertised a ship stocked with them, gangsters fill in the gap. As Moonface Martin, veteran Barry Pearl filled in the book’s gaps with comedy. He was always funny — after a while, you could trust that he would be — and never once did he force it. Nick Tubbs’s Lord Evelyn turned about the other way: from up-market snoot to wild child. The difference was so striking, one couldn’t predict that the same actor playing Evelyn could become the dervish dancing all over the deck with “The Gypsy in Me.”
Most musical productions “coordinate” the costumes — borrow from here and there — and rent the sets. Moonlight did a scenic flip-flop. The costumes were a flashy assemblage of period styles. The sets, however, were a surprise. N. Dixon Fish, who has a long list of impressive credits, designed the Art Deco locales: a Manhattan bar (gorgeous New York skyline in the rear); and the ship, a handsome and fitting site for the intimacy, antics, and large production numbers to come.
One in particular. Ask four people about the origin of tap dancing and you’ll get at least eight answers: African-American “juba” and “ring shouts”; Irish “clog” dancing; the “soft shoe” of vaudeville (a soft shoe with hard leather soles); combinations of these and others. Ask when tap dancing became “America’s second pastime,” and the answer’s simple: the 1930s.