Presented by Marie Clark Musical Theatre
Reviewed 24th June, 2019
This show first hit Broadway in 1934, and ever since it’s been a staple of the music theatre canon. Cole Porter wrote music and lyrics, and the libretto began in the hands of P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, thence to Howard Lindsay & Russell Crouse, and more recently the 1987 revival by Timothy Crouse (Russell’s son) & John Weidman. It is essentially this version which Marie Clark Musical Theatre presents with affection, verve and some surprisingly simple but effective production choices.
Despite the lack of depth of the Arts Theatre stage area, the set design squeezes all that it can from the available space to create the traditional fo’c’sle of a nineteen-thirties ocean liner. The design team of Michael Butler, Helen Wheadon and Ben Todd wisely avoid fussy detail in favour of broad-brush design indications and a set of stout doors through which characters race at the speed of a British bedroom farce.
The story of this show combines mistaken identity, gangsters, industrial relations, love affairs which cross class boundaries, a gentle send-up of clerics, and just a tad of racism, largely expunged by this 1987 revision. Few of these issues matter once the Porter music and lyrics take hold. And driving the energy and excellence of this production is Alana Shepherdson, who plays Reno Sweeney, formerly an evangelist and currently an enthusiastic nightclub singer with a charismatic presentation style reminiscent of her former trade. Shepherdson looks wonderful, sounds just right, dances brilliantly, and acts with consistent energy and edge all night whilst collaborating generously with everyone she shares the stage with. Praise is also due to Costume Co-ordinator Narelle Lee and Costume Assistant Helen Brennan; Shepherson’s costuming is immaculate. Although Reno Sweeney is written as the central character of the piece, Michael Butler’s direction skews the alignment of this production in favour of Shepherdson simply because she evidences the most polished performance skills. It’s a star vehicle for Shepherdson, and her singing, dancing and acting are equally luminous all night.
As Billy Crocker, William Richards works very hard to provide sufficient foil for both Reno Sweeney and Crocker’s boss Elisha Whitney (an expansive, ebullient Lance Jones). However, Richards’ vocal strength, both spoken and sung, falls short, especially in the upper register of his sung voice. (Easy To Love is a good example). The role demands a stronger top range coupled with more reliably robust acting. The female juvenile lead is often a thankless task, but Hope Harcourt, in Maya Miller’s hands, shines quietly and reliably. Her neat acting and excellent vocal skills make her role a gem. The two major male comic roles (Lord Evelyn Oakleigh and Moonface Martin) are much more than mere comic relief. Belief in these two buffoons is central to the coherence of the plot. Chris Bierton’s Lord Evelyn is a triumph. His articulation is so clear you could transcribe every line. He plays “silly Pommy duffer” beautifully, without vaudeville caricature, and his party piece, The Gypsy In Me is a standout showcase of singing, dance and theatrical wit. Perhaps because his costuming is not quite as inspirational as Lord Evelyn’s, Moonface Martin, as portrayed by Buddy Dawson, never appears to be quite as comfortable. His accent has itchy feet, meandering from coast to coast of the USA. Dawson’s role is pivotal, but he seems to have difficulty working at the same energy level as most of the other main cast. The same could never be said for Sandy Wandel. She may have a tiny role, as Mrs Evangeline Harcourt, but she is as bright, energetic and entertainingly smart as you could wish.
Choreography is the heart and soul of this show, and choreographer Rosanna Commisso deserves praise for her work. It’s consistently appropriate, thorough, and entertaining whilst being within the capability of her cast. Reno’s attendant Angels (Hannah Dandie, Zalie Sedgman, Chelsey Webb and Shenayde Wilkinson-Sarti) need to be singled out for their exceptional dance work.
The band, briskly led by Musical Director, Mark Stefanoff, has a fascinating lineup – four trumpets, two trombones, and five reeds, as well as the usual violin/piano/guitar/bass/drums. Stefanoff’s tempi are excellent for the era, and the collective sound quality is fine, driving the dance sequences well. Audio operators probably need a quiet briefing on instrumental/vocal balance; now and again, solo vocalists are in danger of being overwhelmed by the pit. And there’s not much Stefanoff can do about it during the performance.
Lighting is curious. The flat backdrop of the SS American offers an ideal surface to bounce-light. Many colours are tried. Some prove effective. Some are just plain awful – a case in point is the violent deep cyclamen wash on You’re The Top. Thankfully, Shepherdson and Richards transcend its bilious hue.
A horde of minor named characters (angels, bartenders, faux Chinese, sailors of all ranks) people the stage and sing the ensemble numbers with much gusto and skill, especially in Anything Goes, Blow, Gabriel, Blow, and the finale. Gentlemen of the chorus probably need another rehearsal or two for There’ll Always Be A Lady Fair.
From the moment we arrived and were greeted by front-of-house staff sporting white gob caps, the genial spirit of great 1930’s musicals hovered above The Arts Theatre. It looks like staying there, delighting audiences for the next week or so. And yes, almost anything goes!
Review by Pat. H. Wilson
Venue: The Arts Theatre
Season: Evenings May 24 – 25 & May 29 – June 1 at 8 pm
Matinees May 25 and June 1 at 2 pm
Duration: 2.5 hrs
Tickets: Full Price: $38:00; Concession: $33:00