What could a “popular” musical that was written more than 80 years ago still have to offer to modern audiences? Well, if you’re talking about the Woodlawn Theatre’s snazzy new production of 1934’s Anything Goes, a whole heckuva a lot of fun. There are tons of laughs in this energetic show, which was directed with panache by the Woodlawn’s artistic director Christopher Rodriguez.
Set aboard a steamship headed toward England, Anything Goes centers on the romantic trials and tribulations of a number of would-be couples, whose in-and-out-of-love antics play like an out-of-control pinball machine. There’s the sassy evangelist turned chanteuse, Reno Sweeney, who is infatuated with Wall Street broker Billy Crocker — but Billy is smitten with the socialite Hope Harcourt. Meanwhile, Hope is betrothed to the aristocratic Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, and they are on their way to England to be married on his native soil, accompanied by Hope’s gold-digging mother, Evangeline, who doesn’t want anything to get in the way of the marriage, since she has her eyes on Evelyn’s fortune.
Also aboard is financial giant Elisha Whitney, who is Billy’s employer…but he also harbors romantic feelings for Evangeline. Finally, there’s second-rate hood Moonface Martin and the gun moll Erma LaTour, who are fleeing the authorities with their never-glimpsed boss, Snake Eyes Johnson, who is Public Enemy No. 1. Before it’s all over, the couplings bounce all over the place, and identities are frequently switched. Following it so far?
Without question, Anything Goes is the legendary composer Cole Porter’s most famous musical. The first act is literally a “greatest hits” of his oeuvre, with the second act not lagging far behind. Most everyone knows all of these classic songs, including “I Get a Kick out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “Easy to Love,” “Friendship,” “It’s De-Lovely,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” and, of course, the title tune. They’re all performed by a jubilant cast, accompanied by Jane Haas’ terrific seven-piece orchestra and choreographed with élan by star Carla Sankey. Combine these talents with Benjamin Grabill’s splendid set, Rose Kennedy’s perfect ’30s costuming and Matt Smith’s lighting design, and you’ve got a Depression-era show that is breathing with exuberant new life.
With such mirth on display, it’s not surprising that the humorist P.G. Wodehouse (author of the famous Jeeves series of amusing culture-clash novels) was one of the original contributors to the 1934 version, but it still may be a surprise to contemporary audiences just how saucy this show is, especially if they’ve only seen one of the early film adaptations.
In the ’30s, the Hays Code of censorship was in full force in Hollywood, meaning that motion pictures had to be free of obscenity and innuendo in order to be cleared for release, but Broadway productions could still do and say whatever the hell they wanted. As a result, Anything Goes includes some mild PG-level swearing and double entendré that merely adds to the fun for today’s viewers.
The Woodlawn’s cast is aces. Sankey delights as Reno, singing in an appropriately ’30s style (yes, they sounded different back then) while maintaining a winkingly playful eye contact with the audience at all times. Lucas Poliak equally has the pipes and retro style to portray Billy, and Michael Cooling is amusing as the consistently blotto Elisha. Michael Parisi and Shea Tomich also bring the laughs as the would-be tough guy Moonface and the gum-snapping Erma.
Kate Ragan, Isidro Medina and Twyla Lamont satisfyingly round out the bill as the upper-crusters Hope, Evelyn and Evangeline. And, as usual, the Woodlawn’s ensemble marvelously delivers the added voices, characterizations and movements to give this production a Great White Way “bigness.”
Thanks to decades of television broadcasts, most audiences are certainly familiar with the grainy, monaural Paramount Pictures version of Anything Goes, but they really must come to see it brought to life — and in color! — via the Woodlawn’s sensational staging.
Anything Goes plays Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through May 13 at the Woodlawn Theatre, 1920 Fredericksburg Road. Tickets are available online or by calling (210) 267-8388.
Photos: Siggi Ragnar