Musical theater is easy to ridicule. There’re the pirouetting ruffians of West Side Story. There’s the likelihood that every little girl who’s ever seen Annie will annoy her family with the shrill testimony that the “sun’ll come up tomorrow.” But designating musical theater as effete or passé is unfair. And when it comes to the urbane songwriting talents of Cole Porter — who wrote such mainstays as “Night and Day” and “I Get A Kick Out of You” — a whole new barometer for judgment is in order.
So much more than a songwriter, Porter was one of the most original emoters in American history. His songs are timeless and clever. Few have come close to matching his skills as a tunesmith. And even when performed by a community theater troupe like the folks of Cranbrook’s St. Dunstan’s Theatre Guild — even if some songs are delivered ever so slightly off-key — the music holds up. The current production of Anything Goes is proof of this.
Tucked away in a canopy of pine trees, the Cranbrook Greek Theatre, an outdoor amphitheater, is a beautiful place to see a show. One of only a handful of its kind in the United States, it’s the perfect summer entertainment spot. Once the sun goes down, it’s easy to lose yourself in the story.
Anything Goes takes place in the 1930s, on a luxury liner headed from New York to England. While crossing the Atlantic, a cast of colorful characters embarks on much more than a simple cruise across the pond. Evangelist turned nightclub diva Reno Sweeny (Kathleen Warner) and her four backup singer/dancers Purity, Chastity, Charity and Virtue, also known as the Angels (their cherry-red lips and bobbed hairdos suggest that they may not exactly live up to their names) have boarded the S.S. American in hopes of finding work in England. Wall Street financier Elisha J. Whitney (Francis Loud) and his flunky assistant, Billy Crocker (Jim Luzenski), have also boarded.
Also along for the steam are street-savvy gangster and Public Enemy No. 13 Moonface Martin (Frederick Shulak) and his oversexed moll Bonnie (Darci Bryan). When they meet up with New York socialite Hope Harcourt (Julie Landry) and her betrothed, haughty Englishman Sir Evelyn Oakleigh (Don Shore), the scene is set for corny (but funny) jokes and impossible yet entertaining story lines.
The play begins as old pals Sweeny and Crocker have a serendipitous reunion on the deck. Crocker also discovers that Harcourt — a woman with whom he once spent a magical evening — is on the ship with her soon-to-be. Certain that they were made for each other, Crocker devises a plan to steal Harcourt from her betrothed, Oakleigh.
Plot lines develop along convoluted tributaries, and love stories abound. Crocker employs the help of Moonface Martin and Sweeny, who attempts to seduce and then “frame” Oakleigh. But Sweeny develops a fondness for the English gentleman. By the end of the play, unlikely couplings have evolved and, of course, true love prevails.
St. Dunstan’s production of Anything Goes has both charm and chutzpah. The actors are confident and energetic, their dedication evident.
At what appeared to be a missed cue, actors Warner and Shulak camouflaged their panic with hysterical stabs at impromptu dialogue. The mistake — a happy accident by all accounts — melded into a befitting intro to “If you’re ever in a jam/here I am,” the opening lyrics from the famed song “Friendship.” Gleefully along for the ride, the audience roared with laughter and support.
And what would a musical be without a few rocket-fueled dance numbers?
Act 1 ends with an incredible 10-minute version of “Anything Goes,” replete with call-and-response tap routines and ensemble singing. Bryan stood out with her thoroughly entertaining dance skills and clever portrayal of Bonnie.
Also noteworthy is the exceptional costuming. Gorgeously tailored and surprisingly authentic, the adherence to the era’s fashions was dead-on. Sweeny’s costume changes alone are worth the cost of admission.
Anything Goes is a perfect way to spend a night out with the family or even an interesting date alternative. This production delivers the kind of oddball vaudevillian humor that simply does not work in modern-day playwriting. Even the toughest cookie can’t help but hum along with the catchy ditties. No, it ain’t Broadway, in fact it’s the woods, but if you are prepared with an open mind, a jacket for sundown and a can of bug spray, you should have an absolute ball.
See Anything Goes at the St. Dunstan’s Theatre/Cranbrook Greek Theatre (400 Lone Pine, Bloomfield Hills); Friday, June 11, through Sunday, June 13. Call 248-644-0527 for information.Eve Doster is the listings editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]