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Anything Goes - New Wimbledon Theatre

Anything Goes

Review by David Munro

THE only justification for another production of Anything Goes is the Cole Porter score.

This is filled with such songs as You’re The Top, I get a Kick Out Of You, Blow Gabriel Blow, All Through The Night, the title song and Easy To Love, written for the original production and dropped but now replaced.

The current production has added other Porter songs, including Good Bye Little Dream, Friendship and It’s De-lovely making this the quintessential Porter score which was only matched, although some would say superseded, by that for Kiss Me Kate. (For anyone who is interested in the bona fide original score of Anything Goes, this can be heard on a CD album of the show produced by EMI in 1989.)

The score was originally written in 1934 for a Bolton and Wodehouse scenario which concerned the hilarious aftermath of a shipwreck.

The show was already in rehearsal when the cruise liner Morro Castle burned off the American coast, killing 125 people.

As a result, a new book had to be written around the songs, so Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse fashioned one, retaining the passengers on a liner theme but creating a brand new plot about a stockbroker, Billy, who stows away to be with Hope Harcourt, the girl he loves, gets mistaken for a top gangster, is feted by the company only to be thrown into the ship’s brig when the deception is discovered.

Also on board is Reno Sweeney, a nightclub singer; Moonface Martin, an ineffectual gangster disguised as a priest; Hope’s vapid fiancé, Lord Evelyn Oakley; Evangeline Harcourt, her mother; Reno’s cabaret girls and Elisha Whitney, Billy’s boss who believes him to be back in New York!

All is resolved in time for a reprise of the title song at the final curtain.

In 1962, Guy Bolton revised the plot for an off-Broadway revival which added new numbers. This version, with Marian Montgomery and James (Expresso Bongo) Kenney, was produced in 1969 by a young Cameron Macintosh in Guildford and London.

In 1987, Russell Crouse’s son, Timothy, in conjunction with John Weidman, revised the book yet again, adding more Porter songs, for a Lincoln Centre production with Patti LuPone which Elaine Paige brought to The Prince Edward Theatre the following year when John Barrowman took over from Howard McGillin as Billy.

This new libretto, slightly revised, served for the National Theatre/Drury Lane revival in 2002, with Sally Triplett and John Barrowman in the leads, and for the current tour.

The director of the tour, Ian Talbot (forsaking the leafy glades of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre), lives up to his reputation for vivacious and lively musical shows.

He and his choreographer, Bill Deamer, fill the stage with sparking ensemble productions – the quality of the dancing is outstanding – and short, sharp scenes which highlight the songs and disguise the longeurs of the book.

He is well served by a talented cast headed by Michael Starke as Moonface Martin, Angela Rippon as Evangeline Harcourt, Ria Jones as Reno and Barry Howard as the alcoholic Elisha Whitney.

Angela Rippon lets rip on her high kicks and proves she was not just a Christmas Special wonder! Seriously, though, whilst hers is not a big part, she makes her presence felt in her scenes and looks lovely. I was sorry to learn that she is soon to relinquish her role to Sandra Dickinson.

Ria Jones, as Reno Sweeney, had a difficult act to follow. The part was created for and immortalised by the late, great Ethel Merman who was a unique talent and who preserved her interpretation of the role in the Paramount film of the show. Every Reno therefore has to bring her own interpretation of the role with the memory of Merman permeating it.

This is a task which has defeated Elaine Paige, Marian Montgomery and Patti LuPone amongst others. For me, the only players who have succeeded in the role were Louise Gold (who took over from Elaine Paige), Sally Triplett and now Miss Jones.

She attacks the part like a tigress protecting her young, fierce yet gentle. Her singing is perfect for the part and her acting pastes over the fact that the sea changes which the script has undergone have radically reduced and made less sense of the role of Reno than was originally intended; a worthwhile and memorable performance.

Michael Starke, as Moonface Martin, is a delight. Anyone who has watched The Royal on Sunday night television will recognize him as the venal but charming porter and this is how he plays the role, only with an added zest and some surprisingly acrobatic dance movements. He seems constantly astonished at life and the tricks it appears to play on him while retaining an air of good humour and comical acquiescence. He is clearly a very talented comedian – I almost said clown, and to see him in this part is a joy to behold!

Chris Ellis-Stanton, as Billy, is a worthy successor to John Barrowman, Howard McGillin, Jack Whiting and William Gaxton, the great Billys of past productions. He sings well, dances up a storm when required and brings a very pleasing personality and acting skills to the role; a juvenile lead of great promise and one I would hope to see gracing a West End production in the not too distant future.

Perhaps Ian Talbot could be persuaded to revive Pal Joey for him as he appears to have all the skills for that exacting role.

As Hope Harcourt, Billy’s love interest, Ashley Lillie, does all that can be done with a thankless part. She looks lovely, sings well (her rendering of Goodbye Little Dream is one of the most satisfying performances of this difficult number I have heard) and she joins in her duets with Billy tunefully.

But her character, like that of Reno, has been drastically cut down in this version – the final scene, in which she comes into her own, has gone. As a result, the role has become just a well-dressed purveyor of Porter songs. She needs a better role to display her obvious talent and ability.

Anthony Reed, as Lord Evelyn Oakley, Hope’s intended fiancé, and Barry Howard, as Elisha Whitney, both do what they are called upon to do; Mr Reed extracting every ounce from his Gypsy In Me duet. But Dawn Spence, as Erma, a gangster’s moll, was one of the highspots of the evening with her wicked version of Buddy Beware.

Mention too should be made of the dancing sailors and their wonderful rendition of Blow Gabriel Blow with Reno’s Angels but where does the praise stop when the whole show is so good and should be seen to be savoured?

I thought that the National Theatre production of Anything Goes was the definitive version but after last night I’m beginning to wonder whether I made too hasty a judgement.

Certainly, this production does not have the same production values as the National but, despite that, I would say that it is, in its own way, just as good.

Sadly, with the plethora of musicals waiting in the wings for the rest of the year, it’s unlikely that there will be a slot for it in the West End. In which case, the West End’s loss will be the provinces’ gain.

I would advise any lover of good musicals to catch it in Wimbledon before it moves on – it is well worth the fare.

Anything Goes. Book by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman. Based on a libretto by Russell Crouse and Howard Lindsey.
Music by Cole Porter.
Director – Ian Talbot.
Choreographer – Bill Deamer.
Designer – Bob Bailey.
Lighting – Jason Taylor.
Sound – Gareth Owen for Orbital Sound.
Musical director – James Dunsmore.

CAST: Angela Rippon; Michael Starke; Barry Howard; Ria Jones; Chris Ellis-Stanton; Ashley Lilley; Dawn Spence; Anthony Reed; James Paterson; Nathan Dowling; Jay Lim; Alan Bradshaw; Lewis Butler; Emma Francis; Jennifer Owen; Amy Rogers; Vikki Marie Ryan; George Smith; Liam Wrate; Joy Beattie; Holly Dale Spencer.
Presented by Mark Groucher, Lee Menzies, Wimpole Theatre and ACT Productions.
New Wimbledon Theatre, The Broadway, Wimbledon, London, SW19 1QG.
Mon, April 17 – Sat, April 22, 2006.
Evenings – 7.30pm/Matinees – Thurs & Sat 2.30pm.
Box Office: 0870 060 6646