Monday, April 25, 2011

REVIEW: Anything Goes

Review of the April 23 matinee performance at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on Broadway in New York City. 2 hours, 45 minutes, including one intermission. Starring Sutton Foster, Joel Grey, Colin Donnell, Laura Osnes, Adam Godley, Jessica Stone, John McMartin and Jessica Walter. Music and lyrics by Cole Porter. Original book by P.G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse.  New book by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman. Choreography and direction by Kathleen Marshall.

Grade: C

If any of you ever watch competitive figure skating or, hell, even Dancing with the Stars, you can probably understand what I mean when I say that the revival of Anything Goes recently opened at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre is technically very proficient, but artistically lacking.  Stocked with an abundance of star power and a gazillion dollar budget, this voyage-at-sea romp, a classic 30's style farce/musical comedy manages to leave the dock and get to its next port without incident, which I guess most theatre producers these days would be thrilled to have.  But there is no small irony in the fact that throughout the show, the passengers lament that there is no one exciting on board, and that the cruise is a bust, until they latch onto two criminals (one of whom isn't even a criminal).  We, the audience, are left searching for much of the same during this nearly three hour excursion to nowhere, and so we cling desperately to a bonafide Broadway star and a bonafide Broadway legend, neither of whom is ideally suited to the role he/she is playing.
One imagines those first production meetings, when excitement was high.  Broadway's current reigning star and along with the latest Broadway legend making a late in life second career on the boards, have signed on.  A critically respected director-choreographer has also been brought on board along with a multi-award winning design team.  That director-choreographer, Kathleen Marshall, brought the Roundabout Theater Company a critical and Tony-winning success a few years ago with The Pajama Game, with similarly big stars attached.  Surely lighting would strike twice, especially after last season's monstrous failure with star-heavy, poorly conceived Bye Bye Birdie to forget about overcome.  Promises, I'm sure, were made of big splashy dance numbers, eye pleasing sets and costumes and a score that would leave young and (increasingly) old patrons alike humming "It's De-Lovely" as they exit the theatre.  Well, all of those promises were kept, sort of.  But like so many other Broadway promises, many were apparently not kept.

"Anything Goes"
Sutton Foster and Company
There is no doubt that Ms. Marshall can choreograph a tap number.  The title number, "Anything Goes," builds to a near orgasmic frenzy as wave after wave of more complicated tap steps and cast formations are achieved and transform into still other tap steps and cast formations, capped off with an impossibly high, long held note by our leading lady, who couldn't possibly still have that much breath in her to still SING!  And yet, she does just that and all 20+ dancers hit their final button, the cast, breathless in their arms-stretched, photo-op poses as they wait for the act curtain to fall so they can collapse, gasping for air.  And Ms. Marshall can choreograph a light number, too, the waltzing, fox-trotting hybrid of tuxedoed manly men twirling their chiffon-clad partners around the ship's deck in "It's De-Lovely." And, to her credit, Ms. Marshall can also do justice to an outright production number that includes ever-changing multitudes of levels, furniture that seems to disappear before your eyes, and a cast firmly committed to the googly-eyed transformation they are under-going during a lounge-act/tent revival on the Lido Deck, in "Blow, Gabriel, Blow."  Three for three in terrific dance numbers, all of them memorable and exciting to watch and worthy of the rapturous applause each gets. 
The down side?  Well, for a musical so widely lauded for being a dance extravaganza, this is really pretty much it in the dance department, save for a few odd steps here and there during the shtick-y/vaudeville styled duos, "Friendship" and "You're the Top," and the 6 sailors tossing a mouthy broad around during her perfunctory double-entendre number, which in this show is called, "Buddie, Beware."  And here's the real issue: one must wait an hour and twenty minutes until "It's De-Lovely" which is immediately followed by "Anything Goes," and then intermission, followed immediately by "Blow, Gabriel. Blow."  Tricky, tricky!  So much for dance extravaganza.

"Blow, Gabriel, Blow"
Sutton Foster, center, and the Ensemble
Costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, Lighting by Peter Kaczorowski
Ms. Marshall should get high scores for her technical staging of the show.  The pace is consistent - moderation, moderation - and the placement always interesting.  She knows how to use the entire set for staging purposes.  And very rarely does she have anyone in the cast just stand still and sing full front, dead center, instead finding other visually interesting ways to do things.  Yes, she is technically proficient.  But there is a huge problem with that, and with this show in particular.  It is old school, and I mean old school.  It is the vintage musical comedy type that is full of types of the day - an evangelist who is anything but holy, a drunk tycoon who covets a stuffed animal mascot from his rah rah college days, the grand dame who is marrying off her too sweet daughter to the bidder with the highest pedigree and the deepest post-depression pockets, and that very man, inevitably a fish out of water buffoon, and the "celebrity" of public enemy #13 and his sassy, but tired, gun moll/sidekick.  Add some blatantly racially insensitive Chinese guys in ancient Chinese garb who speak in stereotypical broken English - and shock of shocks! one understands it better than anyone ever suspects - and a crew full of Abercrombie Fitch models sea bees straight from South Pacific and a captain who you are almost relieved isn't steering the boat most of the time because he is so freaking stupid - and you there have a 1930's-style cast.
As I said, though, this a huge problem here, and I should specify this particular production, because, despite using the same version of the script and score, the 1987 Lincoln Center revival was a delight in every way.  No, this production is problem-plagued to its very roots because Ms. Marshall, for all of her technical proficiency, has left out one crucial component in trying to sell 80 year old goods to an iPad-toting, fast-paced modern audience: coherence.  You see, no one in the cast seems to be in the same show.  Some of them are in a by-the-book community theater style "summer musical classic series" show; others are in a post-vaudeville series of scenes and songs, minus any of the teaching of how to perform in that style; and still others try desperately to hold it all together because they correctly recognize that old-style, in your face comedy (look at the audience with an almost imperceptible shrug and wink as you deliver an eye-rolling punch line, the visual equivalent of a rim shot/cymbal crash) along with a fast-paced, door-slamming, mistaken-identity farce.  Had everyone in the company gotten the memo that the show was an old-fashioned, post-vaudeville musical comedy farce, this show would actually be worthy of the shockingly misplaced praise it has received from many critics.  (I swear I must have seen a different show than Ben Brantley did!)

The Company: "Anything Goes"
Set by Derek McLane

As I said, the show looks terrific, and you can see where every penny of the budget went.  Derek McLane's enormous set, with three playing levels, is of such a scale that you feel like you are looking at a large ocean liner, along with fabulously appointed art deco style staterooms that glide around the stage effortlessly.  The lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski is musical comedy bright and cheery and includes a "spotlight specialty" for the number "Be Like the Bluebird" which is period perfect if modern day clunky.  And Martin Pakledinaz' costume designs are gorgeous, an endless buffet of style, color and beauty.  (Paul Huntley's hair and wig design also merit special kudos for looking so natural.)

One can't really argue with the quality of the songs here, as Cole Porter is was and always will be a genius.  But even he had a few clunkers, many of which are only being heard here because the SIX different book writers (see above; it is too exhausting to type all of their names AGAIN) pillaged his song trunk for any number they could find to shoe horn into the book.  (The folks who wrote Mamma Mia! did a much better job finding songs from the ABBA songbook, and they are hardly on par with Porter!)  Six cooks and one pot of stew... here, a mess.  In the more capable hands of Jerry Zaks in 1987, a feast.  Doesn't it say something about the book when, one, you are relieved to hear the orchestra start a new song just as a groan at a bad joke almost spills from your lips?; and, two, when the single joke that got a genuine, sustained laugh had to do with a dollop of whipping cream in the face and a comment about a giant seagull?  It says plenty, and not much of it good.  Still, all could/would be forgiven with a great performance and tons of dancing.  So much for forgiveness.

Adam Godley, Laura Osnes, Jessica Walter
John McMartin and Colin Donnell

I give the ensemble much credit in this show.  They are great dancers, all, and as each is required to fill in the background, they do terrific job of looking like they belong there in a variety of situations and guises so that you hardly notice it is the same group of people.  And when they sing together, the sound is quite nice, particularly the male quartet who sing the Sailor's Chantey, "There'll Always Be a Lady Fair," Ward Billeisen, Josh Franklin, Daniel J. Edwards and William Ryall.  And the 4 Angels, aka Reno Sweeney's back up girls, Shin Ann Morris, Kimberly Faure, Jennifer Savelli and Joyce Chittick, exude the sassy been-there-done-that sexy thing with style.  Andrew Cao and Raymond J. Lee deserve credit for even being able to play their roles as Luke and John, the Chinese converts.  So steeped in racial stereotypes, I felt embarrassed for them, especially considering that if the characters in question were of say, African-American descent, the roles would have been rewritten or excised completely.  The vastly experienced Walter Charles is totally wasted as the ship's captain, though I'm sure he is thrilled to cashing a check each week, and Robert Creighton as the ship's purser is just plain embarrassing as he wallows in TV sitcom style pratfalls and horrific line readings; thankfully his is a small role.

"It's De-lovely":
Laura Osnes and Colin Donnell

Of the principal roles, some come out terrifically, others not so much.  Laura Osnes has proven herself to be an actual Broadway baby, not reality star winner; here she does what she can with a basically one-note role, the pretty, pouty ingenue with a lovely soprano voice.  What saves her is that she has stage presence to spare and never disappears into the background; as such, too, she is an excellent scene partner, often the straight man to the (lame) funny lines thrown at her.  Jessica Walter still has her Neil Simon-esque timing, a real asset the few times she gets to do anything important. The rest of the time, she seems to be trying to beef up her presence through an odd series of facial contortions that might play better on TV than they do here.  Both actresses are quality stock, and would have benefited greatly from a bit more direction.  Of all of the principal ladies, only Jessica Stone (so great in the 94 revival of Grease!) seems to be in a 30's musical comedy, playing the sassy, slightly naughty worldly gal to the hilt.  With a veritable wink and nudge to our collective ribs, she controls every scene she is in with a sharp delivery and a tired, almost bored lilt.  She knows she is playing a stupid part in a stupid show and makes silk out of a sow's ear without ever resorting to obvious, audience-pleasing acting tricks.  She is the real deal and thank God for her.

As Lord Evelyn Oakley, the aforementioned fish out of water Brit, Adam Godley wisely refrains from obvious shtick and endless mugging, though his rather strange permanent facial expression always looks like he's about to break out a silly face.  But he isn't really convincing with his running gag about not understanding "Americanisms." And he plays it completely straight as if this were a serious drama.  Worst of all, he has zero chemistry with Reno Sweeney, crucial to the proper playing of the final (highly improbable as played here) scene.  On the other hand, there is the always delightful John McMartin, a theatre legend in his own right, as the drunken tycoon.  He is one of just a few actors that understands the style required to put over this kind of role, and, therefore, even in such a supporting role, there is a certain comfort to be had simply because he is onstage.  He plays the thinking on his feet drunk to perfection, sputtering and stuttering and still making hilarious sense.  Heck, he even makes the bizarre bit Marshall has him doing with a stuffed animal throughout the show actually work.

"You're the Top":
Colin Donnell and Sutton Foster

Colin Donnell as Billy Crocker, the central male ingenue and plot point of the show has "BIG BROADWAY STAR" written all over him.  A true triple-threat, he can sing a wide range, play romantic, silly, physical and serious styles of acting, and he dances like a young Astaire (OK maybe not THAT good, but he really sticks out, he is so good).  And, of course, there are his matinee idol looks that play well with the female ingenue, the funny man and the sassy brassy star.  What a shame he isn't in a better show.  I'm sure this won't be last we've seen of him unless some savvy Hollywood type offers him the keys to that kingdom.  Partly because he manages to work in the correct style and because his charisma matches that of his two co-stars, the three of them come across much better in the theatre than they do after some thought about the production some time later.

While there is no doubting that Joel Grey is a major draw here, those going to see their favorite Wicked Wizard may be sorely disappointed.  In this production he is going much farther back in his acting history to draw upon styles of acting no longer generally practiced in the modern musical, but entirely apropos here.  It is when he gives a broader edge and a literal look to the audience that his character, Moonface Martin, Public Enemy #13, truly takes flight.  Why?  Because of his acknowledgement that the upcoming and ongoing silliness is all part of the game he is playing, we can go willingly into that absurdity as co-conspirators, rather than observing something that is just plain ridiculous with someone else playing it straight.  He has the good fortune to have nearly all of his scenes with Ms. Stone who is his perfect foil, and with Mr. Donnell, who slides easily into that frame of mind.  One wishes, though, that amidst all of that knowing wink and nudge play with the audience that occasionally he'd dial back the cutie pie aren't-I-a-cute-old-guy-who-still-has-it thing.  Of course, being a consummate actor for several generations, he can't help himself since he only does the overreaching thing when he's in scenes with his other co-star.  He is trying, it seems, to match her, move for move.

Joel Grey and Sutton Foster

Let me just say right here that it pains me to say anything negative about Sutton Foster.  She is the kind of actress I'd go to see just to read the phonebook out loud, and I thoroughly enjoyed her every time I've seen her, even in shows I really didn't like.  And it is difficult to explain why I think she is a complete miscast as Reno Sweeney, especially since, as every critic under the sun has said, she is a genuine triple threat Broadway Star.  But it goes back, I think, to my original thought about the whole show: there is a huge difference between technical proficiency and artistry.  Now I haven't had the good fortune to have seen every single show she's done, but what I have seen her do always goes well beyond nailing her lines, dancing her long legs off and singing any score like bird.  She always brings a genuineness and humanity to every part she plays.  That is really saying something when you consider that in Shrek she managed to sell a song about burping and farting like it was tenderest ballad ever written.  But here, well, she seems lost at sea. 

Don't get me wrong.  She is fully committed - an excellent, exciting dancer, and a pretty funny jokester, and Cole Porter would probably love to have written for her.  Yet, everything about her performance seem like she is playing dress up, trying on wigs and costumes, odd occasional accents, and fake Merman-esque line readings for a real part she hopes to play 15 years from now.  The truth is, she can't hide her natural bent toward the wide-eyed but always smart young woman roles (like Jo, Fiona, Millie) that are her forte.  Her Reno is chock full of smarts, quick barbs and sassy back talk, but those are the lines she supposed to say; she makes them very hard to believe.  And her serious pushing to nail things betrays what appears to be a lack of confidence in her ability with this role, because for the first time, I am seeing her mug for the audience and try to divert our attention with some seriously bizarre eye movements and mid-sentence accent changes. 

There are certainly moments where it doesn't matter if this glass slipper doesn't exactly fit her - "Anything Goes" is sure exciting to watch when someone with her skill set is front and center.  And when she's being girlishly charming as when she sings "You're the Top" with Mr. Donnell, it also works because she is abandoning Reno and giving us Sutton.  Only when she is in direct scenes with Mr. Grey, like "Friendship," where she looks like she wants to squeeze his cute cheeks and koochy-coo him, or when they get to do a few over the top nearly vaudevillian scenes together, does Ms. Foster's performance even approach what her character should be.  All three work best together because combined, they are unstoppable; separately they struggle. 

Colin Donnell, Sutton Foster,
Joel Grey and Reno's Angels

Mostly, though, I think Ms. Foster would come off much better had she had a little more direction that made her and everything around her one cohesive show, not groups of people all on the same boat but all getting off at different places.  And that has all to do with the direction.  Any good coach will tell you that you need the basics, the skills, the technical perfection to do well no matter the game.  But an excellent one will tell you that you need to understand that there is more to whatever you are doing than just doing it correctly.  Passion, flare and a respect for what you are working with will make you even better than perfect.

(Photos by Joan Marcus)

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  1. Yikes, Jeff. I'm not sure I saw *exactly* the same show Brantley did, but what I saw was closer to his view than yours. I totally agree about the racist Chinese bit, which IMO should be excised somehow, but outside of that, I really enjoyed the show and its cast. I enjoyed it more than How to Succeed and about as much as Catch Me if you Can.
    I'm not sure what you're seeing next, but I hope you'll like it more. It's frustrating and disappointing to spend the time and money to travel and see a show and then not enjoy it.

  2. On the contrary, Londyn! I find every experience to be of value, even if the production frustrates and disappoints. Very rarely can I say that a show was a complete waste of time or money. I look at shows like this as an exercise in watching and thinking about what might have been, and a way to regain perspective and appreciation for shows that are really good or great. And there were several things I admired about ANYTHING GOES, it is just that many of them were overshadowed by those things I disliked. Plus, it is actually kind of a relief to see that even someone as truly great as Sutton Foster is still can struggle and isn't always so perfect. I respect her a lot for going outside that comfort zone. In 15 years, she'll be perfect for Reno Sweeney.



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