Some would have it that, if you're going to produce the classic American musical Anything Goes, you need to start with a female lead singer with lungs powerful enough to suck-start a Ford Explorer. That's because the keystone role of nightclub chanteuse Reno Sweeney was originated some 70 years ago on Broadway by Ethel Merman, the air-raid-siren-voiced icon who could call out for Chinese without picking up the phone.
Well, the Great Lakes Theater Festival's production of Anything Goes features no such stentorian performance. But the show is absolutely buoyant, owing in large part to the immortal songwriting talent of Cole Porter and a strong performing ensemble.
Porter was a man of his time, both an iconoclast and a sybarite, and he captured the conflicted attitudes of pre-World War II America, a nation that had raced happily out of the libertine Roaring Twenties only to get T-boned by the Great Depression. His tunes remain as unexpected, cynical, and charming as they were when the show opened in 1934: "You're the top/You're the steppes of Russia/You're the pants . . . on a Roxy usher."
While the music in Anything Goes has remained blissfully unchanged over the years (albeit with some Porter songs substituted for others along the way, a practice the songwriter approved), the accompanying book has been revised a couple of times. The last major rewrite, by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman for the New York revival in 1987, is the version presented here, freighted with enough bad puns and slapstick to keep an ocean liner afloat.
And properly so, given that all the action takes place aboard ship as a gaggle of Americans and Brits -- society doyens and stowaways, missionaries and gangsters -- convene to find their true loves. And whether those love objects are people or money (or both), the road to musical-comedy happiness is paved with bouncy Porter melodies and piercing Porter lyrics. In addition to "You're the Top," the show is studded with gems that include "I Get a Kick Out of You," "It's De-Lovely," "Easy to Love," and, of course, the title tune.
Highlighting the talented cast is Steve Routman, who consistently pins the laugh meter as gangster Moonface Martin. Routman uses his droopy Huckleberry Hound face, augmented by a voice like a waterlogged kazoo, to give his many punch lines just the right dry, downbeat delivery. Perhaps his biggest laugh comes when he's offstage, winning a shipboard skeet-shooting contest with his own violin-cased weaponry.
Billy Crocker, the young stowaway who pines after his high-society love, is played by Hunter Bell, whose tenor voice sounds like it's vibrating out of an old Truetone radio. In the Merman role of Reno Sweeney, Nancy Hess cuts a fine figure, but lacks the ability to belt out songs that cry for such treatment, especially the rousing "Blow, Gabriel, Blow." Her voice is lyrical, but was stretched a bit too thin on the highest notes. Kelly Sullivan plays Billy's love, Hope Harcourt, with delicate grace. And Bill Bush and David Kortemeier contribute plenty of chuckles as, respectively, the nearsighted and besotted Eli Whitney and the befuddled but ever-randy Lord Oakleigh.
Director Victoria Bussert keeps the proceedings moving at a crisp pace, a necessity with so many groaners in the dialogue. (She, disdainfully: "Liquor has never touched my lips!" He, soused and intrigued: "You know a shortcut?") The two-level set design by John Ezell and period costumes by James Scott are fun without being pushy.
The only crimp in the professionalism of the company came when the actors apparently amused each other sufficiently to break character and tried to suppress their own laughter. This tired gimmick, polished to an art form by Harvey Korman and Tim Conway on TV's old Carol Burnett Show, is a needless distraction. And while it's hard to know if the character breaks are spontaneous or choreographed, it hardly matters. If real, it's undisciplined; if planned, it's cheesy.
Amid all the frivolity and romantic hijinks there is one wistful moment, when a character refers to the numerous suicides of sleazy stockbrokers and conniving CEOs during the Depression years. If only the capitalist leeches of today had such self-regulating instincts.