Cole Porter (Music & Lyrics)
P.G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, Howard Lindsay & Russell Crouse (Original Book)
Timothy Crouse & John Weidman (New Book)
42nd Street Moon
It only takes those first, several, familiar notes of the “Overture” to send a spreading wave of swaying shoulders, nodding heads, and tapping toes throughout the 42nd Street Moon audience, with grins smiling universally wider than the Cheshire Cat’s. After all, this is Cole Porter and Anything Goes, the 1934 musical where virtually every song has gone on to be included in the Great American Songbook. No wonder revivals keep gracing the Great White Way, including the latest two in 1987 and 2011 which both won Tony’s Best Musical Revival as well as the 2021 London, twice-extended revival. Not only are the songs of Cole Porter big, perennial draws; but so are his uniquely clever lyrics, the rousing choreography (including one of the best tap numbers in all Broadway history), comical elements that make the best of Vaudeville look dull, and a multi-level love story that is full of mishaps, disguises, and many happy endings for all.
Under the tongue-in-cheek, astutely sharp-eyed direction of Nick Ishimaru, the eighteen-person cast of the Moon presents an eye-popping latest revival of the Cole Porter classic that gleefully rides the high seas in a comic-packed, laugh-out-loud Anything Goes.
Ashley Cowl sings an opening “I Get a Kick Out of You” with notes that slide with subdued emotion before sustaining in a state of slight, sultry vibration. As the former evangelist, now nightclub singer Reno Sweeney, Ashley Cowl immediately introduces a defining style of sure-fired confidence and glamourous gutsiness that will permeate and often dominate the stage all night.
Her Reno will continue to sing and dance us across the Atlantic as she journeys from New York to London on an ocean liner full of dancing sailors; long-legged chorus girls, goofy gangsters, and goofier aristocrats. The well-known, New York performer of late-night clubs is in love with a certain Wall Street broker, Billy Crocker (Matt Skinner). He joins her in a mutual, love-fest song of one-upping compliments in “You’re the Top” where her snazzy, spotlight style is countered by his boyish, more small-town looks and manners. The two become a great singing and dancing duo full of gesturing antics, exaggerated facial expressions, and big moves of the extremities that wonderfully illustrate lyrics that are over-the-top in Cole-Porter cleverness.
Billy has stowed away on the luxury liner (under what will be a number of wild and wooly disguises) in order to convince debutant and socialite Hope Harcourt (Jas Cook) to marry him instead of the ridiculously proper and pompous, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Nick Nakashima) of British aristocracy.
Reno has decided to help her pal Billy thwart the nuptials being planned by Hope’s mother, Mrs. Evangeline Harcourt, played deliciously self-important by Juanita Harris. Reno solicits her pal Moonface Martin – a second-rate gangster and “Public Enemy Number 13” disguised as an over-sized nun – to help her in a series of silly subterfuges. The two reaffirm their long-time bonds in one of the night’s best numbers, “Friendship.” As the nun-frocked gangster-on-the-run, Heather Orth joins Ashley Cowl’s Reno as the two sing with glee and gusto, supplementing their close harmonies with coordinated pantomimes; calisthenics-like, facial expressions; and big steps and stomps in a number worthy of the best of yesteryear’s Vaudeville stage duos.
The waves of silly shenanigans multiply by the minute as the story goes through countless twists and turns, with every trick and trickster leading to another show-stopping musical number with almost everyone getting a chance to shine at one point or another. In his satin robe, boxer shorts, and gartered socks, Billy’s bone-headed, bumbling boss, Elijah J. Whitney has lost his glasses in a Moonface-executed, giggle-producing caper so that he will not detect Billy on board. Whitney nevertheless raises his glass of bubbly and sounds forth “Crew Song” with a voice sung bombastically big and boisterous by Gary Stanford, Jr.
Nick Nakashima’s Lord Oakleigh draws well-deserved laughs at every appearance, using his endearingly over-done, British accent; his constant misunderstanding of American puns and phrases; and his wide-mouthed, wide-eyed expressions to create a British snob we cannot help but love. His delightful awkwardness as he teams up with Reno in “Let’s Mis-Behave” capstones one of the evening’s best, comic performances among many.
With a dynamically clear voice that belts in crisp, flirty manner in “Buddie Beware,” Jillian A Smith as Moonlight’s sidekick, Erma, is joined by a quartet of sailors in a sensational song and dance number where an initial soft-shoe stroll across the stage gives way to Erma’s being lifted, flown, and turned topsy-turvy by the dancing sailors in just one more of Robyn Tribuzi’s night-filled extravaganza of well-designed and -executed choreography.
Transforming Moonface from traditional male to 42nd Street Moon female is a brilliant move by Director Ishimaru. I can think of no one better suited to bring bigger-than-life presence hilarity to Moonface than one of the Bay Area’s best on the stage, Heather Orth. Her Moonface brings howls of laughter every time the frocked Nun raises her arms shouting “Don’t Shoot” when there is sounded somewhere a loud snap or crack, followed by various sheepishly hilarious expressions as she quickly moves into frenetic jumping jacks or starts pointing at phantom flying fish. In her “Be Like the Bluebird,” Moonface sports a wide range of great character-defining voices as she “tweet-tweets,” “tra-la-la’s,” and flutters her notes, resulting in resounding waves of laughter from the audience.
For those of us – and in this audience, clearly there are many – who through the years have journeyed across the sea in past productions of Anything Goes – there are two numbers we are particularly waiting to see how they measure up; and tonight, there are mixed results. “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” requires everything be big in capital letters: production values, choreography, costuming, and especially a voice that at least approaches the power and presence of the original Reno, the incomparable Ethel Merman. While Ashley Cowl for sure has the assuredness, the moves, and the overall demeanor to ensure a knock-out “Gabriel,” her otherwise excellent vocals in this number and others do not have the natural volume to win the battle against the four-person, well-played, well-directed band (Dave Dobrusky, Music Director) and/or a big-sounding, full ensemble. Throughout the evening, she and some other principles (in particular Billy and Hope) are in dire need of individually applied microphones in order to amplify their fine voices over the accompanying music. Unfortunately, this is an issue I have seen in other, past 42nd Street productions, especially as the company has moved from piano-only or piano and only one instrument accompaniment. What a difference miking the key performers would make in this current Anything Goes.
But as to the other, highly anticipated number, Act One’s finale of “Anything Goes,” can this company tap like it’s nobody’s business? The answer is a resounding, “Yes, you bet your red, white, and blue they can!” The entire double-level stage of the ocean liner so ably designed by Kuo-Hau Lo literally shakes and trembles with tap dancers in total unison of toe-and-heel prowess. Opening up the number in rounds of twos and threes stepping forward to wow us with their toe-tapping moves, the line-up grows to ten where big arms and big hands join the rapid clickety-clack of metal on wood along with an entire ensemble singing with effervescent snap and snazziness for a finale to be remembered.
This sea voyage would be much less fun and funny as well as elegant and extravagant without the warehouse full of 1930’s costumes designed by Lisa Danz. There are enough spangles and sparkles to light up a Fourth of July sky, with furs, topcoats, wraps, and satins shining forth among the uniforms of sailors and ship captain. The lighting design of Sean Keehan highlights beautifully the array of elegant wear as it parades or dances across the stage, with the sea’s shadowed waves often playing off the ship’s deck.
Save the inability always to enjoy fully some of the iconic numbers due to lyrics too soft in comparison to the underlying score, there is an ocean full of fun to be had in 42nd Street Moon’s Anything Goes. Particularly in its many quirky and comical characters, this shipload of frivolity and romance is exactly what the song says: “It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s de-lovely.”
Rating: 4 E
Anything Goes continues through March 12, 2023 in production by 42nd Street Moon at the Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at https://42ndstmoon.org/.
Please note: All patrons must wear masks during all performances.
Photo Credits: Ben Krantz Studio