Anything Goes — One of the hidden dangers in producing such a tried-and-true show as Anything Goes — a show studded generously with iconic Cole Porter tunes and written in part by acclaimed humorist P.G. Wodehouse — is that the company might slack off and allow the material to sell itself. Fortunately, this is unlikely to occur in any musical helmed by Terri Kent, the artistic director of Porthouse Theatre and the director of this sensational evening. By paying close attention to the details of staging such a large cast, Kent creates a framework within which the featured actors can shine individually. The story takes place on board an ocean liner peopled with the pure (wealthy Hope Harcourt, who is engaged to the slightly daft Brit, Lord Oakleigh) and the profane (C-list criminal Moonface Martin and nightclub chanteuse Reno Sweeney). Love and sweet silliness abound as poor young stowaway Billy Crocker tries to woo Hope while posing as a gangster, and Lord Oakleigh finds himself being lured into Reno's silken clutches. Kaycee Cummings as Hope stays afloat and delivers her songs with professional polish. As her counterpart Billy, Justin Gentry has the looks and the pipes, but he doesn't have as much fun as he could with Billy's love-struck devotion and bad-guy masquerade. Sandra Emerick brings a saucy simmer to Reno, and Eric van Baars' Lord Oakleigh mangles American slang ("You're the rat's pajamas!") with English panache. Through June 28 at the Porthouse Theatre, Blossom Music Center Campus, 1145 W. Steels Corners Rd., Cuyahoga Falls, 330-672-3884. — Christine Howey
The Carpetbagger's Children — This script by Horton Foote elegantly covers the history of the Thompson family, which is headed by a Civil War Union soldier who's moved his clan to Harrison, Texas. The play is delivered in separate monologues by three aging Thompson sisters, who recollect and reflect on the past. Cornelia is the brains, entrusted by their dying father with the vast family estate. In this role, Hester Lewellen is beautifully understated, evidencing both submerged pain and subtle sarcasm as she discusses dealing with her addled mother, loser brother, deceased sister, and a lost love. As the rebel, Grace Ann ran away with an undesirable chap and was cut off from the family, only reappearing at the father's funeral. Lissy Gulick shows glimpses of Grace Ann's spirit, but it seems more muted than it should be. The third sibling is Sissy, a woman who happily admits she "always liked being the baby." Shallow but sensitive, Sissy is fully embodied by the perennially elfin Mary Jane Nottage. Directed with tender focus by Lucia Colombi, the production is evocative, but never fully overcomes the structural problem of three characters who, sadly, are never allowed to interact with each other onstage. Through June 29, produced by Ensemble Theatre at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Ave., 216-321-2930. — Howey
In the Garden — This ambitious but often didactic script by Norman Allen labors to blend spiritual observations, hard-edged rationality, and new age symbolism. But an impending slide into pseudo-intellectual irrelevance is happily blocked by the playwright's ability to craft realistic moments and some damn funny lines. And under Clyde Simon's direction, those lines are delivered with skill by a largely talented five-person cast. It's anchored by Gabe, who starts the play naked. But it's his soul that's laid bare. It's never made clear whether he is a student or a prostitute; homeless or rich; a kid, God, or the Devil himself. But he is undeniably erotic catnip for the adults who cross his path, including philosophy professor John (played with spot-on credibility by Vince DePaul), John's wife Muriel (the excellent Lucy Bredeson-Smith), and John's businessman-buddy Walter (a snarky Arthur Grothe). The play requires a Gabe who could believably generate total sexual obsession. That's exactly what we get — at least physically — in Tony Thai, a lean fellow of mystical mien who has a winning grin. Unfortunately, Thai isn't able to enunciate when speaking rapidly. Still, the play has some great lines, and when Garden blooms with wit, it fairly erupts. Through June 28, produced by Convergence-Continuum at The Liminis, 2438 Scranton Rd., 216-687-0074. — Howey
A Nervous Smile — Brian and Eileen are a married couple, strong financially but otherwise crumbling, because their teenage daughter has cerebral palsy. This has driven the parents in different directions: Eileen to the bottom of scotch and Vicodin bottles; Brian to the arms of Nicole, a married woman whom he and Eileen met at a CP parent support group. Both families have children beset by the same disorder, and they join forces when Brian reveals his and Eileen's stunning plan to split up, and abandon their daughter at a hospital, leaving a substantial bank account for her care. (Brian also invites Nicole to leave her son with her clueless husband and escape to Argentina; she hurriedly accepts). The scheme is at once unthinkable and terrifyingly rational. As Eileen, Dede Klein is wonderfully brittle and bitchy, but she reveals just enough heart to let you know there's a person inside her withered shell. Also splendid is Linda Ryan, who makes the Russian Jewish candor of Blanka, who helps care for Emily, refreshingly biting. Susan Lucier handles Nicole well, although she seems soft on lines at times. As Brian, Michael Gatto never overcomes his physical stiffness and lack of chemistry with Lucier. Overall, John Belluso's unblinking study of the most trying form of parenting is written with insight and grim humor. It's a work that can send your soul searching in a number of directions. Through June 28 at the Bang and the Clatter Theatre, 140 E. Market St., Akron, 330-606-5317. — Howey
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