With uncanny prescience, this modern morality tale, first produced in the 1930s, begins with a shady, insider stock deal and chronicles such contemporary blights as violence, greed and the cult of celebrity until it culminates in an apotheosis of decadence: the greedy cult of violent celebrities. I would like to report that the audience left the theater wrapped in thoughtful conversation, if not reduced to tears of despair. But in fact, the crowd seemed insanely lighthearted -- giggly, chatting and humming the title song (as though impervious to the urgent jeremiad of its lyrics): "The world has gone mad today, and good's bad today, and black's white today and day's night today."
Anything Goes was one of the big hits of the Depression years, perhaps because it's such a potent mood elevator -- and I defy you not to enjoy this knockout cast doing their thing.
The way the play came about is nearly as nutty as the play itself. A Broadway producer on the lam from creditors was hiding out on an island in the gulf of Panama. Out in a boat fishing one day, he started to plan his comeback. A great musical! Let's see, I'll need a star. Ethel Merman. And a composer. Cole Porter. And a writer. P. G. Wodehouse. Oh, yeah. A story. Who knows? (Here, he looks around, then taking his cue from his environment.) "It takes place on a boat."
So, he gets his team together and they come up with a play about a shipwreck. But just as it goes into rehearsal, an ocean liner called the S. S. Morro Castle sinks with a loss of 137 lives. All right, 86 the shipwreck. But Wodehouse and his partner are in Europe, so Howard Lindsey, the director, hires a guy named Russel Crouse, who's been working as a press agent. They'll work together and take it from here.
"We went into rehearsal with only two-thirds of a first act and there was no second act at all," Lindsey later confessed. Legend has it the title was a comic nod to way the show was thrown together.
Somehow, the joyous cheek of its genesis seems to color the show, vibrate in its music and spill out in the irrepressible nonsense of its plot. Though I must say, there are moments where the comedy slips from Marx Brothers to burlesque and, if the vessel wasn't buoyed up by so many great songs, we might have that shipwreck after all ... on the shoals of goofiness.
At Le Petit, we are in the best of hands, from headliners to walk-ons. Karen Hebert is a gracefully provocative Reno Sweeney, attractive by way of easy confidence. Jimmy Murphy, as Billy Crocker, is that rarest of creatures -- especially in musical land: a leading man who seems to deserve the woman he's courting. Michelle Marcotte, as the debutante Hope Harcourt, is that almost-as-rare species: the nice girl who doesn't make one wonder what's wrong with the leading man for wanting her instead of the hot number. Between them, this trio wows us with such gems as: "I Get a Kick Out of You," "You're the Top," "Easy to Love," "It's Delovely," "Anything Goes" and "Blow, Gabriel, Blow."
Kris Shaw does a reprise of his Big Easy-winning role as Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, that dastardly corrupter of Chinese youth who turned little Plum Blossom into little Plum Tart, and, once again he's a total joy. Dane Rhodes' Moonface Martin, public enemy No. 13, delights with the eccentric gyroscope of his body English and impeccable comic timing. Other standouts are Bob Edes as Elisha Whitney, a Yale man four sheets to the wind; and Charlotte Schully, as Mrs. Evangeline Harcourt, a society dowager in need of a quick infusion of cash. Cher Westcott's Erma is a pert and tempting little dish. Bert Pigg, Tom Spitzfaden, John Son and David Son are among the many solid supporting players.
The large ensemble does some great hoofing (with choreography by Hebert), and there is close harmony crooning by a sailor's quartet of Brandt Blocker, Derek Franklin, Bryan Wagar and Mark Weinberg. Jay Haydel leads the maritime orchestra, live on the poop deck, and Linda Fried gets credit for the spiffy threads.
This is a classic cocktail of a show: a double shot of vintage Cole Porter at his five-star best mixed with 90-proof unadulterated silliness.