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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
By Elyse Sommer
Porter's songs are indeed indestructible. The daffy plot that swirls around mistaken identities and mismatched lovers and the inevitable happy ending with wedding bells for the properly matched couples is fun. The archetypal characters (young lovers, a vamp-y nightclub singer, a foppish Englishman and a wannabe Public Enemy #1) all make the deck of the London-bound SS America resonate with Porter's marvelous melodies.
Unfortunately, despite the sturdy score and the large cast, Roger Rees's production doesn't seem to have enough wind in its sail to be a real dazzler. While set designer Neil Patel has smartly positioned the orchestra upstage to create the effect of a luxury ship band -- it's just that, an effect, and that goes for the rest of Patel's usually terrific scenic work. The Williamstown Festival's elegant new Main Stage with its capacious playing area calls for this kind of big, old-fashioned show with colorful scenery instead of a few rather clunky props that rely on the dialogue to establish that we're on the deck of a luxury liner, and with nary a glimpse of any other part of the ship. The most interesting design element here is the time and place setting November 1, 1934 New York Times front page "curtain." The sizeable cast notwithstanding, this basically bare bones staging often give the large stage a decidedly underpopulated look.
More disappointing still is that, except for Malcolm Gets as the somewhat dim Brit Sir Evelyn Oakleigh and Remy Auberjonois as the gun-toting gangster in priest's clothing, Moonface Martin, the production lacks drop-dead performances. Sharon Lawrence is attractive and has a voice that's good but not in the powerhouse category of Ethel Merman (the original Reno Sweeny) or Patti LuPone (who memorably recreated the role in the 1987 Lincoln Center production -- and who is currently in a truly original musical revival of Sweeney Todd). This is most evident in the "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" in which her voice melds into rather than stands out from the ensemble. Lawrence also stands aside watching The Angels (this production's best dancers) more like a member of the audience rather than in character.
Matt Cavenaugh who I last saw in a double role in Grey Gardens (the Playwrights Horizon hit slated to move to Broadway this Fall) is a handsome and strong-voiced Billy Crocker but he and Nikki Renee Daniels who plays his beloved, Hope Harcourt, generate little or no romantic sparks. Daniels is pretty and sings well but her acting is another matter, especially some of her awkward looking stage exits.
Williamstown regulars, Tom Bloom as Elisha J. Whitney and Sandra Shipley as Hope's bossy mom, are, as usual, solid. However, this isn't really an ideal vehicle for their talents.
Tim Foster's credentials as a choreographer couldn't be better. Too bad that he's hobbled by not having topnotch dancers to work with and so his choreography is more ordinary than extraordianry.
Kay Voyce's costumes are colorful and authentically 1930s. The orchestra delivers the music with pizzazz -- too bad pizzazz is otherwise in short supply.
A bit of background: The show is said to have originated with a producer named Vinton Freedley, who was living on a boat in Panama after leaving the US to escape from his debtors. Before the show could move forward, a passenger ship, the SS Morro Castle, caught fire and more than a hundred passengers died. To avoid accusations of insensitivity, Freedley's shipwreck concept was hastily rewritten. The title song is said to have been born during a late night meeting of the production team at which one of the producers answered an exhausted and exasperated member of the team's "And just how in the hell are we going to end the first act?" with "Anything goes!"
Ethel Merman played Reno Sweeney, William Gaxton was the love-sick stowaway, Billy Crocker and Victor Moore played the second-tier gangster on the run Moonface Martin. The show which opened at New York's Alvin Theatre on November 1934 ran for 430 performances, making it the fourth longest-running musical of the 1930s. It was revised (besides updating the book, the show incorporated some Porter tunes from other show) and it is the revised version that is used at Williamstown. Lincoln Center's revival at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in 1987 marked the beginning of its popular subscription series (originally a $25 membership fee entitled you to see that season's shows for just $10 apiece). Besides Patti LuPone to challenge Ethel Merman's "owning" the Reno Sweeny role, that production featured Howard McGillin as Billy Crocker and Bill McCutcheon, Moonface Martin.
For our review of Trevor Nunn's London production three years ago (replete with revolving sets to take us inside the ship) go here .