If you want to pick the perfect musical for a summer theater in the open air, it would be hard to choose a better one than Anything Goes. When you combine the enduring magic of the Cole Porter songs with a book originally written, in part, by the esteemed humorist P.G. Wodehouse, and put it all on board a luxury ocean liner, it's damn hard to miss.
The story itself, having gone through some revisions over the years since it debuted on Broadway in 1934, is gloriously complicated — involving disguised identities, gangsters, celebrity hounds, small dogs (alive and stuffed), con artists and swoony crushes. It all swirls around Reno Sweeney, the evangelist turned nightclub performer who falls for a young Wall Street investment firm go-fer named Billy.
Billy has been summoned to the ship so he can leave and run an errand on land for his thoroughly besotted boss Elisha Whitney, a Yale man, who is always caressing his Yale stuffed bulldog mascot (when he's not caressing a bottle of Scotch). But once Billy lays eyes on heiress Hope Harcourt, who is on the ship with her snarky mother Evangeline, he is smitten and never leaves the boat. This leaves hot-to-trot Reno in the lurch. That romantic triangle is adorned with a gaggle of other characters who all have their own agendas.
A bargain-basement gangster named Moonface Martin and his floozy gal pal Erma are on the ship disguised as a minister and missionary, but they end up leaving their leader "Snake Eyes" Johnson, Public Enemy No. 1, back at the dock. So they give Johnson's passport to Billy, who is stowing away in hopes of igniting romantic heat in the heart of the beauteous Hope.
But alas, Hope is engaged to be married to the stuffy Brit, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh. Since he's evidently not overburdened by sexual urges, the pleasantly daft Oakleigh (a most amusing Eric van Baars) spends his time listening in on conversations and documenting American colloquialisms, which he always butchers.
Back in the day, these ships were competing for which liner could attract the biggest celebrities, be they entertainers or criminals. So once Billy is viewed as a morally corrupt individual, he becomes a big attraction among the passengers and crew. It's kind of like sharing a Greyhound bus ride with Rudy Giuliani.
In addition to the delightfully farcical plot, this show has the added attraction of featuring a couple of the most enthralling production numbers around, And thanks to director Terri J. Kent and choreographer MaryAnn Black, those numbers are the stars of this show.
Act 1 ends with the title song, tap danced to a fare-thee-well by the ensemble of sailors and Reno. It's a rousing, pounding celebration of tap, that arcane art form, and it's magical. Almost as good is the dancing that accompanies the stirring "Blow, Gabriel, Blow."
Indeed, the Porter music never lets up with standards including "I Get a Kick Out of You," "You're the Top," and "It's De-lovely." And all the singers handle these tunes with the high style we've come to expect from the Porthouse company.
Taking on the pivotal role of Reno Sweeney is Porthouse stalwart Sandra Emerick, and she turns in her usual professional job. But there's something missing, and that may be due to playing opposite Matthew Gittins, who never finds a character thread as Billy. It's a demanding role, since Billy also impersonates a sailor in addition to the fearsome gangster. But this Billy is mostly a handsome young man who just sings and says words — since Gittins never develops a character who is even vaguely interesting.
Fortunately for the production, other actors pick up the slack. Liz Woodard is charming as Hope, and as her mother Jess Tanner stretches the envelope to the ripping point as dotty Evangeline. But her antics almost always work, while the same can't be said for Christopher Seiler, who pushes the gangster Moonface Martin a bit too hard and too obviously. Happily, Rohn Thomas doesn't overdo the drunk schtick as the rich souse Elisha, which is a relief.
One of the highlights of the show is when Reno and Oakleigh explore his secret affinity for the passionate side of life in "Gypsy In Me." Their comically sensuous tango is over-the-top in all the right ways. Seeing these two hoof up a storm, including a well-timed spin interrupted by Reno running offstage and then back on without missing a beat, is pure joy.
Music director Jennifer Korecki keeps her nine-piece band on top of the great tunes, while scenic designer Rob Wolin and lighting designer Cynthia R. Stallings create some lovely moods, particularly for the Billy and Hope love song "All Through the Night." The result is a show that isn't perfect but has enough spark and wit to make for a pleasant June diversion.