MAGNA — If laughter is the best medicine, Cole Porter’s Anything Goes should be widely prescribed. Though the Empress Theatre’s production of the musical is anything but perfect, one thing they got dead-on was the timbre and comedy of the show. In the end, flaws seemed forgotten in the face of the humor—proving that even in showbiz, if you can make the audience laugh hard enough, you can “heal” other shortcomings.
From the start, the Empress immersed the audience in the play’s world, as the Captain (David Pack) handed out programs and welcomeed me aboard, a sailor showed me to my seat, and all around the theater is painted to look like the interior of a ship (as designed by Devin Johnson). These details were delightful and helped launch a happy, community atmosphere.
Anything Goes (music and lyrics by Cole Porter; new book by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman; original book by Guy Bolton, P. G. Woodhouse, Howard Lindsay, and Russel Crouse) is an upbeat musical which follows Billy Crocker, a young street-smart New Yorker who has recently fallen in love with Hope Harcourt, a debutante who is socially way out of his league. When Crocker discovers that Hope is aboard the same ship to England as his stock-trading boss, Elisha Whitney, Crocker makes the impulsive decision to stay aboard in an effort to convince Hope to marry him rather than her British fiancé, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh. Other storylines follow Moonface Martin, a gangster fleeing the country with his friend, Erma, as well as Reno Sweeney, New York’s top showgirl, and a handful of minor characters.
Fans of classic Broadway will likely recognize the many famous Porter songs which originate from the musical—“I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “It’s De-Lovely,” “Blow, Garbriel, Blow,” and of course, the title number, “Anything Goes.” Reno Sweeney (played by Emalee Easton) gets to sing the majority of the well-known songs and Easton’s strong, lively, and bright voice is a perfect fit with the numbers. Easton is a lovely Reno, giving the character the charm, wit, and sauce she needs to be believable and comedic. “Anything Goes” showcases her voice the most beautifully, and she works well in scenes of banter between herself and other characters, particularly with Billy Crocker (Josh Astle) in “You’re the Top,” Moonface Martin (Matthew Green) in “Friendship,” and Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Colin Doxey) in “The Gypsy in Me.”
My personal favorite performer of the night was Matthew Green as Moonface Martin. He made a hilarious New York gangster and lit up every scene with his accent, manner, and his remarkable comedic timing. Like Easton’s Reno, Green had great chemistry with the other characters and made every scene he was in funnier by being in it, particularly during the brig scenes, in which Astle’s Billy is pining—a necessary emotion for the moment, but not the most entertaining without Green. Green’s sidekick, the sultry and flirtatious Erma (Brittany Bush) was also fun to watch whenever onstage, as Bush played the character with consistency and bravado.
Another favorite of mine was Colin Doxey as Lord Evelyn Okleigh. Doxey’s Lord Evelyn (“Evie”) was adorable and hilarious all at once, as Evie constantly misuses American slang—with great flair. Doxey hit on the humor of his scenes extremely well, particularly during the scene in which he is pretending to duel himself in his mirror and all throughout his song, “The Gypsy in Me.”
Though I enjoyed Josh Astle’s Billy Crocker in his acting, dancing, and general characterization, I am not unfortunately a fan of Astle’s singing voice, particularly during his two love ballads, “Easy to Love,” and “All Through the Night.” He was off-pitch as much as on, and his tone lacked consistency, instead relying on shaky, overdone vibrato. I hope with better vocal support and an effort to even-out his sound he can improve in future performances. Moments where Astlesucceeded were pretty much any time other than when he was singing ballads. He made a funny, likeable, relatable Billy and his dancing was reminiscent of Gene Kelly, particularly during, “Easy to Love” and “It’s De-Lovely,” both during which Astle and his partner, Emily Preston (playing Hope Harcourt) soared with the stylized 1930’s dancing. Preston’s Hope Harcourt was dainty and sweet, but her singing was on-again, off-again as she also struggled with hitting the notes on pitch.
Sadly, one of the biggest flaws of the evening’s performance was the sound system in general. The microphones were badly out of balance with the music and sometimes both mic-ed and non-mic-ed singers were drowned out completely—such as in “No Cure Like Travel.” Other times, however, the microphones were turned up way too high, making the singers much too loud for the music, particularly during Crocker’s ballads and any of Reno’s songs. It was unfortunate that the sound was so off, because it made strong singers like Emalee Easton (Reno) sound bad and already weak singers sound even worse.
The Empress has three-sided seating wrapping the stage, but happily directors Rachel Rasmussen and Curtis Nash blocked the show well, balancing attention between the three audience sides. Rasmussen and Nash also made sure no jokes were missed as even subtle jokes were played up in such songs as “Friendship,” in which Moonface (Green) and Reno (Easton) move from congenial promises (“if you’re ever in a jam, here I am”) to snarky remarks (“if they ever make a cannibal stew of you, invite me, too”). The actors’ facial expressions, body language, and voices sold the humor in the mounting battle of almost-insults.
The chorus numbers were all entertaining, but the tap-dancing and singing in “Anything Goes” made it my favorite. Choreographers Jake Anderson and Kylee Ogzwalla did well throughout the show matching 1930’s-inspired dancing with the styles of each song. Also, the costumes by Melissa Buxton and Rachel Rasmussen were appropriate for the time period, nicely diverse, and brightly colored, with Reno’s costumes being the show’s stand-out pieces.
Despite the weaknesses in the sound quality and in some of the performances, the script is hilarious and the actors played up the humor well. I would actually recommend this production overall—even with the flaws—because of the high quality of the comedy. Turn a deaf ear to the sound and instead focus on the laughter and you will be able to enjoy this show.