Anything Goes

Music and lyrics by Cole Porter 
Book by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse 
Directed by Robert J. Eagle and Eileen Grace

Choreography by Eileen Grace
Robinson Theatre, Newton, MA. -- August 2001.

Reviewed by G.L. Horton
The Reagle Players'  "Anything Goes" is a bang up revival, with solid professionals in the leads and a cast overflowing with terpsichorean talent: 10-- count 'em, 10-- Angels, 8 Sailors, and another 18 Passengers. Choreographer and co-director Eileen Grace has deployed these troupes of talent wisely, and all the big numbers have dance patterns that illustrate and celebrate Cole Porter's music.  Bob Eagle has seen to it that the cast has what it takes to make sense of a story that is mostly an excuse for songs and comic bits, and has balanced leads and supporters most effectively. The vocal ensembles are rich and full, and it is a thrill to hear the the more difficult Porter harmonies done with precision.  Extra praise to Joseph Beninati, the vocal coach and accompanist.  Sceno Graphics is credited with the ocean liner set, and very impressive it is. However, the set requires elaborate pull-on scene changes that slow the show, which clocked in at just under three hours, even eschewing encores. I think I'd settle for a skimpier set if it made room for another chorus of "Friendship" or a repeat on "Blow Gabriel" or "Anything Goes". Costume design is by Ann Carnaby of Tracy Theatre Originals.  Carnaby's costumes are abundant and colorful and move well -- some of the credit for this must surely belong to Gayle Sullivan, Reagle's trusty wardrobe mistress-- but with some notable exceptions such as the ingenue's classically elegant pink suit and the feather hemmed powder blue dance dresses on the "Delovely" ensemble, I didn't much care for the costumes' tonal effects.  The showgirl Angels in particular seemed to have their natural attractions smothered in dowdiness, like attendants herded into unflattering gowns by an insecure bride. And why would Reno Sweeny stage a seduction in a glittering neck to toe swathe of aqua sequins that looks as if it would be as difficult to shed for amour as a suit of armor?  Still, lavish is lavish, and the fashion parade of liner life a trip in itself whether this season's styles are or aren't one's cup of tea.

The 1934 book of "Anything Goes"  by Howard Lindsay & Russell Crouse was a during-rehearsal emergency replacement for the first version, by Guy Bolton & P.G. Wodehouse.   The 1987 Broadway revival had a revised book by John Weidman and Timothy Crouse that tried to pare away various accretions and restore a 1934 feel to the show while trimming it to suit modern pacing.  The Reagle's production, like all the others I've seen,  uses Guy Bolton's 1962 Off Broadway rewrite.  In whatever version, "Anything Goes" is the boy gets girl story of Billy Crocker (Chris Warren Murphy), an attractive young playboy employed on Wall Street whose night clubbing has earned him the acquaintance of some show biz celebs and their gangster patrons.  Billy fell in love with socialite Hope (Megan Allen) at a posh NYC party, and rode around all that night necking with her in a taxi. But Billy lost his upper crust lady love when, free from the taxi's spell, she recovered  her respectably engaged right mind and was whisked away by her family without giving Billy a forwarding address.  Miraculously, while Billy is attending on his boss Elijah Whitney  (Bob Ader) as Whitney is about to sail for England on an ocean liner, the lovelorn young man suddenly spies Hope traveling with  her watchdog of a mother (Carol Antico) and her aristocratic twit of an English fiancé, Sir Evelyn Oakleigh (Harold Walker).. Billy decides to stow away and win his lady back against the opposition, titled or not:. He has the help of Public Enemy # 13, Moonface Martin, (John O'Creagh) a gangster who is on the lam from the FBI disguised as a Protestant missionary, and Moonie's show biz moll Bonnie (Martina Vidmar).  The celebrity entertainer on the boat just happens to be Billy's old and dear friend Reno Sweeny (Karen Murphy), a speakeasy headliner who has an even flashier sideline as a fire-and-brimstone evangelist.  Billy sets the famously sexy Reno to vamping to distract Sir Evelyn from his Hope, but Reno finds hidden attractions in the frigid Englishman.  She decides to give Sir Evelyn more than a passing fancy-- the opportunity to turn a tarnished Star into a Lady.

Martina Vidmar is returning to the Reagle after her admired Adelaide in "Guys and Doll", and I like her even better as Bonnie.  "Heaven Hop" and "Let's Step Out" are great fun, and Vidmar projects a kind of innocently athletic sexuality a la Betty Boop. John O'Creagh too, is an established favorite in Waltham after his performance in Reagle season opener, "1776".  O'Creagh's Moonface is about as good as a Moonface can get, a superb performance of one of the most sublimely ludicrous roles in all of Musical Comedy. Bob Ader's Whitney is also superlative, but this seems sort of a waste.  Surely a merely excellent performance by one of the Reagle's home-grown second bananas would have sufficed?  I find it hard to believe there wasn't a local amateur good enough to have been cast as the liner's Captain, too.  On the other hand, much as I admire the talents of Waltham's favorite history teacher comedian, Harold Walker, I thought Walker somewhat miscast as Sir Evelyn.  Walker is an "in the know" type of comic, and here he is playing an English blockhead whose dullness seemed due to nature rather than nurture. I got no sense of the poor little rich chap whose human responses had been educated out of him, no sense of a butterfly of gallant sensuality imprisoned within a dull cocoon of coded conduct,  set free by Reno's heat and taking flight in  "Let's Misbehave".  The couple did some funny business with a feather boa: it worked, it was funny.  Even with feathers, though, there was no taking flight.

Allen's Hope and Murphy's Billy are fine, but Reno Sweeny is the star part:  Reno made a star of Ethel Merman.  Karen Murphy has pipes with power approaching Merman's-- I'll bet Murphy did a spot-on Merman spoof when she was in the cast of "Forbidden Broadway"!-- and besides bringing clarity and power to Reno's songs, Murphy projects a frank likability that bonds effortlessly with the audience.  But the friendly chemistry that links the Reagle performers to the audience and to each other, while it provides first rate entertainment, isn't quite the right chemistry for a show titled "Anything Goes".  I know that this Cole Porter fueled concoction is now  a "classic musical comedy", out of a more innocent era, and except for an embarrassing bit of anti-Chinese humor-- which a more sophisticated staging could easily avoid-- considered fit for middle school music students to perform in nursing homes. But I demur.  For the 1934 audience, that ocean liner was off shore territory, where prohibitions don't apply.  They went to "Anything Goes" for the sensation of life with the lid off, available at no personal risk.  I think we should have that, too. Besides the thrill of a Rockette line of precision kicking Angels, I want to see on stage some of the moralitry-turned-upside-down spectacles of Carnival. I want the heady impression of Bacchic revelries just out of sight.  I want to feel real chemistry between the characters, and experience the vicarious pleasure of a stage awash in pheromones! To quote my reviewer's complaint about an earlier sparkling but yet somewhat sanitized production at Turtle Lane Playhouse: "this is a Naughty show. Lust is "De-lovely" here, and Porter's lyrics have nothing but praise for sin of  all sorts-- gambling, drinking, dope, dancing, necking, fornicating, murder and robbing banks-- well, maybe some reservations about murder -- all of it fun, fun, fun. Be merry, brethren and sistern. Your characters have survived so far (at least to the middle of the Great Depression) but at any moment Gabriel may Blow his Horn -- and the question on Judgment Day isn't Did you play by the rules? but Did you savor and celebrate? The only vice that gets thorough disapproval in "Anything Goes" is the inauthenticity of celebrity worship". Thankfully that's not a vice much practiced by the Bob Eagle's  Players.  On the Robinson Theatre stage, a community unknown or a solid pro who not a household name can match skills against the legends of legendary performances. Amateur or Equity, talent rules.


Lyrics by Tim Rice, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed and choreographed by Ken Urmston
Reagle Players, Robinson Theatre
Waltham, MA  July 2001.

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

The Reagle Players "Evita" doesn't look or feel like a Reagle show.  This should be taken as praise, I believe.  It is proof that Bob Eagle's theatre is now large enough and skillful enough to produce something at odds with the humane and neighborly sensibility that makes going to see a Reagle show such a cozy pleasure.  Usually when I praise a Reagle musical it is because its staging has equaled the polish of the top professional stagings I've seen, in NYC or London, or a national tour, and has added charm in that the Reagle Players cast includes local amateurs whose delight in displaying their professional level skill is equaled only by the delight a Waltham audience that includes family and friends takes in seeing the Players strut their stuff.  "Evita" isn't like that. There are still plenty of Reagle regulars -- nineteen of the cast members, including one who is the 3rd generation of her family to appear in Reagle shows--- but although they have plenty to do in the ensemble, where they change costumes and characters nonstop and sketch in relationships that bring a bygone era and a distant nation to life, they have been subsumed into a seamless whole.  Evita may soar in her anthem of aspiring national identification, and decrescendo to indicate inclusion, singing  to the little people "Don't keep your your distance", but here the Waltham little people do keep their distance, as do the visiting professionals.  The staging is all distanced, but the distancing is precisely graduated to point up the manipulations of the emotions the Lloyd-Webber music evokes.  "Evita" is one of the best examples of Brechtian Epic Theatre's alienation effects that I have ever experienced.

I must admit that I have no experience of a top professional staging of "Evita", or even of a church basement one. For comparison I have only the CD, which seemed to me repetitious and meandering, and the movie, which seemed such a hodgepodge I could barely sit through it.  Colleagues who saw "Evita" on Broadway tell me that the force of Reagle's version equals what they felt  in 1979, and that no subsequent production they've seen has been marked by the attention to detail that distinguishes this one. I can only say that I thought the Reagle staging excellent: sharp and brisk and assertive, and that it also gave me a strong sense of the teeming world out of which these surface effects emerged.  As story telling, it combined brilliantly with the music.  What on the recording had seemed boring repetition became intensifying variation, while the meandering opened up space for the intellect to collect and reflect on the layers of irony in the events and attitudes recounted by the Tim Rice lyrics.  Ken Urmston, who is responsible for both staging and choreography, says in the program that he has been "staging companies of Evita since 1979" -- which is the year  the Hal Prince production opened on Broadway, to be rewarded with a run of 1,567 performances, 7 Tony awards, and stagings around the world. Urmston is credited with those in Canada, Germany, Holland, Belgium, France, Italy Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Singapore.

The "Evita" set design is metal scaffolding with exposed light fixtures and an overhead movie screen which is used for black and white "news" sequences throughout the production.  The set was adapted and shipped in from the Fullerton Light Opera. The projected photographs circa 1940-50 fill in some sociology and grit that the abstract physicality of the staging omits.  Urmston will refer to those images, set a scene with the ensemble's bodies used as scenery, and alternate between fluid "backstory" motion and freeze-frame pauses while the principals act out stylized encounters in the foreground.

The production is framed, beginning and end, by a formal scene of Evita's coffin: the Argentine President's wife and co-ruler dead of cancer at 33 and revered as a saint by the Argentine masses. After the "Requiem for Evita" the camoflage clad figure of a guerilla, Che (Vincente D'Elia), will guide us through the parts of the story the principals would not tell us.  The principals seem to be carried along on emotional vectors they share with the people.  Bobby Matteau as the singer Migaldi embodies macho romance for the love starved provincial women-- but when Eva "succumbs" to Miggaldi's public love making he is trapped in his own myth, doomed to repeat his musical seductions provincially until he is old and unattractive, his only claim to fame the fact that he was Evita's first step up.  Eva's upwardly mobile career of prostitution is a deftly individualized version of the brothel scene in the Brecht-Weill "Mahagonny",  "Good Night And Thank You", and may represent the only career ladder for a girl born out of wedlock in the slums. Peron's cursus honorum through the ranks of the Argentine military is staged as a political elimination game of  musical chairs, "The Art of the Possible", ending with Peron's sigh of satisfaction exhaled in cigar smoke. Eva has accrued some media fame when she propositions Peron at a Charity Concert with "I'd be Surprisingly Good for You".  Eva  has a vision of them together, male and female, discipline and compassion, becoming a political embodiment of the dreams of the Argentine people.  They will empower the little people to identify with their rulers for once, rendering mass poverty endurable because they will be as one family, proud of the attainment of their patriarch, not an underclass battened on by masters who despise them.  There is a phalanx of First Family aristocrats, veddy English, who move as a unit in a fashionable pose as they sing their disapproval of a base born whore who thinks she can rule as First Lady-- she'll never be a lady of any kind, let alone a First..  When stripped of their jewelry and fancy clothes they disappear  into the crowd.  All of this is narrated, framed, and commented upon by Che, who represents the other emotional vector bubbling up from the oppressed masses-- Marxist revolution.

Vincente D'Elia is a charismatic Che,  his critique keeping us alert to the economic realities and summing up with  "And the Money Kept Rolling In" (And Out) Kerri Jill Garbis is a veteran  Evita, having performed the role "in every state but Hawaii", but she is as convincing as the brash untutored teen as she is as the burnt out invalid running on nerves alone. Garbis' Eva is yearning and tentative, then brassy and brave,  intelligent and elegant at her plateau, and bravely vulnerable once she begins her cancerous downward slide. Ronald L. Brown seems to me to be too nice a guy to play Peron, too much the supportive leading man even when he is fondling a lapful of  nymphets or dispatching his thugs to take care of threats like Che. Bonnie Fraser provides as Peron's child/mistress in "Another Suitcase" a delicately sympathetic sketch of what Eva's career might have been if she had had less intelligence and determination.

Altogether the production is -- well, all together.  It is a solid as monument, glittering but dark, layered with wit and irony but joyless.  I am glad to have seen it, and I regret that I didn't take the opportunity to see "Evita" years ago. I expect that I will want to see it again, in a different production, to put this one in perspective.  "Evita" certainly absorbed me, and I can't help admiring the skill with with it was executed.. But it is a cold and detached admiration.  The emotions evoked by the Lloyd Webber music are under constant re-examination and deconstruction, their manipulations and indulgences revealed. They are visualized  as powerful, with images ripped from newspapers and portentous fingers of light reaching out through darkness, with cheering and parades and weeping and rosaries and coffins-- but they are powerful for Others, people of a distant land, another era,  prisoners of a different System.   The distancing that forces me as audience to see through the story rather than be swept up by it and prevents me from putting myself in the shoes of the Peronista little people and identifying with Evita, may extend to the point where there is no bridge connecting her story to my here and now life.  What use is a rigorous analysis of dreams unless the dreams are my dreams, too?