Cole Porter, the lyricist composer, was a Yale man. Ron Porter, the dancer-director, is a Harvard man. Put them together and Yale wins 24-20, but it's a hell of a game. Sometimes not what you'd expect, sometimes not what you'd want, but a hell of a game.
A Cole Porter song can be big. It is bound to be wondrously professional. But it is not inclined to be brassy, and Ron Porter's direction is nothing if not that. The quantity of dancing in Anything Goes is phenomenal. Some of the actors can't stop dancing even when the music ends. They float across the stage when they should walk, but they float so damn well, and so fast, that the trick is turned. And since the show is musically solid from "You're the Top" to "Take Me Back to Manhattan," all complaints have got to be qualified, if not out of existence, then temporarily out of sight.
The orchestra and chorus perform noticeably above the usual Grant-in-Aid show level, particularly in the big numbers. "Bon Voyage" and "Heaven Hop," the kind of songs you'd expect to be weakest in a college production, are instead the strongest. And the cast, uncomfortable at line-readings, has a better aggregate singing voice than any Harvard musical in ages.
The best thing about the show has to be the choice of the property. It is in the nature of Grant-in-Aid productions to possess mass appeal, or to strive for it. The last two, Guys and Dolls and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, were obviously drawn from the approved list of sure-fire musicals. Everyone had seen them both, and the film version of Forum even played simultaneously with the Grant-in-Aid rendering. Anything Goes comes off the same list, but it's been infrequently produced, and its score more heard-of-than heard. (Actually the score to Anything Goes isn't all that's being heard at Agassiz: several songs, including "It's Delovely" and "Friendship" are interpolated from other Porter shows.)
Anything Goes was the big Broadway hit of 1936, Cole Porter's greatest success to date, and a large landmark in the American musical theater deserving production more than the hits of the last decade.
The book, mostly the work of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, represents the flowering of a dominant style of pre-war musical comedy. An intricate, well-knit plot midway between a P.G. Wodchouse novel and a Pudding Show, though visibly pieced together in the Taft Hotel or the New Haven Railroad, is among the best of its kind--good enough to pose a favorable contrast to today's usually more stylized, loosely constructed counterparts.
At Agassiz the book occasionally takes it in the ear. First of all, the extra songs (an innovation borrowed from the recent off-Broadway revival) are preceeded and followed by predictably awkward transitions. Also it helps not at all that each musical number, when the dancing is over, has gone on so long you forget whatever plot-point led into it. Worse yet, director Porter and his company are plainly more comfortable when the music is playing than when it's not; when there's no dancing, no orchestra, and no flashy movement, everything falls a little flat.
The Lindsay-Crouse book--which throws just the right number of exotic characters on board a ship called the American--demands to be played with a certain minimal degree of dryness, not to mention subtlety. There aren't any blatantly inadequate performances in the Agassiz production, nor any blatantly wrong ones, but the general tendency is to over-act in a big way. Lines which should be dropped lightly are hurled down like Galileo's cannon balls until you can't distinguish one impact from the next.
Roger Kozol, as con-man Billy Crocker, has the potential and sometimes shows it. He sings well, hits some difficult notes, and, if anything, seems too comfortable during the numbers. With the dialogue, he is merely pedestrian, and consequently misses the big laughs. Ronni Lynn Unger, as Reno Sweeney, shares Kozol's virtues and his faults, except in one song, "I Get a Kick Out of You," which simply refuses to conform to her vocal talents. It's a great song; the result is unfortunate.
Musically, one performance is a knockout. Shannon Scarry, as a gangster's moll hasn't got a great deal of voice, but she uses her limitations to good comic effect when she sings, and when she dances she doesn't have any limitations. There's also one solid comic performance, by Richard Rockefeller, who plays the broad Englishman like he should never play anything else.
Toby Hurd manages to extend one joke into a funny performance; Josh Rubins contracts a wealth of jokes into something not funny at all, except for a fine "Be Like the Bluebird."
Todd Lee's set must have been conceived by a computer. Its pieces fit together perfectly at several different angles, to produce several different, all satisfactory, shipboard abstractions. The rectangular frames successively form bunks, jail cells, and simple platforms. The computer also had a good color sense in plotting an orange-on-black effect that neatly relates one scene to the next. The scene changes are slow, but the masking music makes them happily bearable.
Just listening to Anything Goes from a loud, live orchestra more than compensates for the excesses of the Agassiz production. Following the lyrics word-for-word, which Peter Larson's chorus unexpectedly makes possible, is doubly satisfying. Last night's audience applauded only at "And though by all the birdies in the boughs he/is informed that his efforts are perfectly lousy." But the great lyrics in Anything Goes are legion.
"I Get a Kick Out of You," stands out as the best. Nothing can match
My story is much too sad to be told, For practically everything leaves me totally cold; The only exception I know is the case When I'm out on a quiet spree Fighting vainly the old ennui, And I suddenly turn and see, your fabulous face.
But no amount of lyrical or musical genius can obliterate the productions one grisly faux-pas: an otherwise nonexistent character choreographed for himself by the director. It is one thing for a director to appear in his own production, and quite another to write himself into it. Besides, he should have trusted this production enough to be in the audience, watching.
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