Saturday, May 10, 2014

Imperishable songs — well-staged and -sung — carry new concert version of 'Anything Goes' in Indianapolis Symphony production

The classic period in American musical theater between "Show Boat" (1927) and "Oklahoma!" (1943) teemed with silly stories free of much probing into either character or society. The new genre had liberated itself from operetta conventions, pulled by jazz-inflected music. And, oh, what a wealth of songs enlivened the dramatic format! Many of them, especially those by George Gershwin and Cole Porter, sprang loose from their slight scenarios to put on immortality.

Reno Sweeney (Rachel York) wows the sailors in "Anything Goes"
Porter has been well-served by productions of "Anything Goes," which premiered 80 years ago and has been boosted in revivals with the addition of Porter songs from elsewhere. The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra this weekend is presenting a staged concert version of the 1934 shipboard romantic comedy, incorporating revival aspects.

Any show ending in three marriages — a couple of them correcting mismatches overcome with difficulty — is sure to lift the spirits of anyone who is not resolutely anti-marriage. But the chief vehicle of that uplift is the songwriting genius of the privileged boy from Peru, Indiana, who went off to Yale and never looked back.

His tunes and lyrics became a byword for sophistication. In this show, specifically: "All Through the Night" must be almost as hard for singers to learn (and interpret naturally) as "Begin the Beguine," with the melodic nuances of art song. "You're the Top" is a clever omnium-gatherum catalogue of dated superlatives in rhyme, the bilingual author's cheekiness extending even to rhyming "de trop" with the song title.

The production enjoyed symphonic luster under Jack Everly's baton.
Pops maestro Jack Everly deserves credit once again for his devotion to bringing forward great examples of popular art in which the orchestra can have a pivotal role. As he noted Friday night before the second act of the show, playing to a full house at Hilbert Circle Theatre, no previous landmark in the show's history enjoyed accompaniment by a 55-strong orchestra. A skeptic might say that the orchestration doesn't require such a hefty ensemble, but this production turns that to advantage: The balance is perfect, thanks to discreet miking of the singers. And the large string complement puts brass and percussion in symphonic perspective; the average pit band can easily allow blare and bang to dominate.

Stage director David Levy and choreographer Jennifer Ladner put their specialties into tight coordination throughout. There may be a little too much mickey-mousing of gesture and lyrics, but the flow is admirable, and the investment of the cast in the emotional undercurrent of each song rises to, and stays at, a high level.

The spectacle of cavorting sailors and ship passengers "testifying" physically to "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" as Reno Sweeney (Rachel York) leads the song got the second act off to a strong start. York didn't have the sustained belting capability of Ethel Merman's recording (live and in her prime, she was said to be even more amazing), but who does? If Gabriel happens to have chapped lips on Judgment Day, Ethel's voice would be sure to sound the Last Trump adequately. At any rate,  the tall, slinky York commanded the stage almost effortlessly, from her first vocal appearance in "I Get a Kick Out of You" on through the finale.

Unfortunately, Act 2 declines somewhat after "Blow," as a series of individual showcases proceeds. On opening night, the effect of that, despite advances in the plot, resembled a musical revue.

In the true spirit of musical comedy, Billy Crocker (Max von Essen) and Hope Harcourt (Marissa McGowan) are clearly meant for each other.
Star turns ranged from the poignant "Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye" (for Hope Harcourt, an ingenue role, winsome in Marissa McGowan's performance) through the introspective "All Through the Night" (mainly for the dapper, beautifully inflected tenor Max von Essen as the accidentally-on-purpose stowaway Billy Crocker) to the saucy "Buddie, Beware" (Tari Kelly, adorably snappy and self-possessed as gangster moll Erma).

The questionable interpolation in this series is "Most Gentlemen Don't Like Love," for the matronly socialite Evangeline Harcourt to give romantic advice to Reno. The chanteuse-evangelist's  blithe self-confidence is waning as the voyage nears England. Judy Kaye, an ISO pops favorite and Broadway regular, deserved a spotlight vehicle, the production team must have figured. But her character seems to have kicked love around as much as the gentlemen she sings about. So there's an unsettling feeling of the pot calling the kettle black about all this, backed by several of the company girls, kicking dismissively.

Despite spots of line trouble, Gary Beach capably held down the broad comedy end of things as Public Enemy No. 13 "Moonface" Martin. Ted Keegan buoyed up the second-act solos as he shed Lord Evelyn Oakleigh's dim-witted, repressed English-aristocrat image with "Gypsy in Me." Dennis Kelly was appealing as Billy's bibulous boss Eli Whitney, a mix of unrequited lust and Yale-bulldog bravado untempered by Wall Street.

The first act went from strength to strength, smoothly tying together vigorous ensembles (in which members of the Indianapolis Men's Chorus were vital) like "Bon Voyage" and "There'll Always Be a Lady Fair" with solos and duets, notably Billy and Hope's "It's De-Lovely" and Billy's intense, soaring "Easy to Love."

All told, the ISO's "Anything Goes" is itself easy to love, from the orchestral splendor and pizazz opening each act right on down the line, starting with the title song. There's no mal de mer on this voyage with Everly at the helm. In such capable hands, goodness knows! the S.S. Cole proves well worth getting out of dry dock and setting sail at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

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