Photo by Liz Lauren
Some shows have deep meanings. Some spend tons of time developing the nuances of their characters. And then there are those shows that are simply fun. Guess which category Cole Porter’s Anything Goes falls into. (Congratulations! You got it in one!)
Nope, there is nothing deep about this Porter farce, which has just about enough plot to give all of the delightful and delovely songs something to do. Taking place on a cruise ship, the show finds Porter manipulating his mostly silly characters with the same aplomb with which he knocks out rhymes (some of which he really needs to reach for…but those are the ones that will make you smile the most).
For the uninitiated: the voyage features cabaret singer (and former evangelist) Reno Sweeney (a brilliantly effervescent Meghan Murphy) along with upper-class cruisers like Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Jackson Evans, who is so winningly over-the-top that his every word or step is a highlight). Lord Evelyn is accompanied by his fiancée, Hope Harcourt (Emma Ogea in the role of a daughter allowing herself to be married off due to the financial stress of her mother, played by Genevieve VenJohnson). Hope is actually in love with Billy Crocker (Luke Nowakowski), a Wall Street clerk who spent an intimate evening with her and who has stowed away on the ship just to have more time with her despite orders from his boss, Elisha J. Whitney (Anthony Whitaker), to divest some stock the next morning. Also aboard is Moonface Martin, Public Enemy #13 (Steve McDonagh), pretending to be a minister, among others.
The vicissitudes of the plot are hardly worth detailing: this is a 1930s farce, so as long as things stay complicated everything is copacetic. And as I said, it’s all about the songs, anyway. From the opener, “I Get a Kick Out of You,” through “Easy to Love”; “You’re the Top”; “Friendship”; “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” (Reno needs to be a former evangelist for some reason, right?); “It’s DeLovely”; “Anything Goes”; multiple other Porter tunes, this show is a joyous feast for the ears (thanks to musical director Nick Sula and sound designer Matthew R. Chase) as well as great fun for the eyes as well (thanks to choreographer Tammy Mader and director Michael Weber, not to mention set designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec and lighting designer Max Maxin IV).
Murphy’s performance is the one that holds everything together: she duets with both McDonagh’s comical gangster and Nowakowski’s desperate young lover, as well as leading the ensemble in several energetic dance numbers. The six-time Joseph Jefferson Award winner is so on her game here that, despite strong performances across the board, everything shifts into an even higher gear when she is onstage. She is nothing short of a miracle in this role.
So is Linda Madonia’s seven-piece onstage orchestra, sounding like a much bigger one. Trumpeter Greg Strauss gets a well-deserved spotlight in “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” but everyone shines. And director Weber keeps his performers to a clean, quick pace while allowing for some individual bits to provide laughter…especially those involving McDonagh, Evans, and Tafadzwa Diener, playing Moonface’s mol, Erma.
There is a reason that, unlike almost all of its contemporary musicals, Anything Goes continues to be loved 90 years later. Laughter is universal and timeless, and this show couples farce with such classic songs that I challenge anyone to attend and not have a ball.
Anything Goes is now playing at Porchlight Music Theatre, 1016 W Dearborn, Chicago, until Mar 10. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.