Thank god Alan Jones was unable to appear in the Sydney season of Anything Goes. This razor-sharp, near-perfect production of Cole Porter’s beloved classic relies on an expert cast, able to execute character-based comedy with precision, confidence and flair, and an amateur like Jones would have almost certainly stuck out like a sore thumb and drawn the audience immediately out of this delightful, madcap 1930s world.
Anything Goes is a ridiculous farce set aboard a cruise ship headed from America to England, and it would really be a waste of space to tell you much more about the plot than that. There’s a cast of colourful and eclectic characters, starting with the risque nightclub signer Reno Sweeney (Caroline O’Connor), the suave young stockbroker Billy Crocker (Alex Rathgeber), the beautiful debutante Hope Harcourt and her betrothed, the foppish English Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Todd McKenney).
What follows is a textbook tale of mistaken identities, confused love affairs, slapstick and farce. The book, which over its life has had six collaborators trying to steer the course between the gorgeous show-stopping Cole Porter numbers, is really quite poor, but it’s spun into gold by this superb cast under Dean Bryant’s astute directorial hand.
It’s a rather staggering achievement that you don’t notice how lame this book really is — Bryant and his cast keep the pace up and never miss an opportunity to get a laugh, and that’s about all you can do with it. Every comedic and musical beat lands exactly where it should, every moment of pantomime silliness is pitched at the right level, and there’s a glorious consistency to the performance styles; it’s one thing to put the right people in the right roles, but it takes a great director to make sure they’re all heading in exactly the same direction. (Although the production still can’t quite overcome the cringe-worthy subplot which relies on Asian stereotypes.)
And praise must also go to choreographer Andrew Hallsworth, whose movement ranges from the gentle and romantic in It’s De-lovely to the bawdy and broadly comedic in The Gypsy in Me and Blow Gabriel Blow, as well as musical director Peter Casey who keeps a tight, scorching hot jazz ensemble together atop the set and keeps gorgeous vocal performances humming along perfectly in step down below.
Leading the charge on stage is the irrepressible Caroline O’Connor as Reno Sweeney. It’s a tour de force musical performance, full of spunk and intelligence. She roars her way through all the singing, drawing meaning out of every single word, particularly in her duet with Rathgeber, You’re The Top, and dances circles around many of her younger co-stars, finding a playfulness inside all of the choreography. The sheer vivacity of the first act finale — the title number Anything Goes, choreographed with a ferocious energy by Hallsworth, which makes tap dancing as exciting and vital as tap dancing can ever be — almost drew a mid-show standing ovation on opening night.
But the rest of the cast hold their own brilliantly against Australia’s leading lady of musical theatre. Alex Rathgeber and Claire Lyon turn their potentially bland roles as the two romantic leads into something sweet and engrossing with beautiful singing from both: Rathgeber’s honey-soaked tenor in Easy to Love and Lyon’s crystalline soprano in Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye.
Todd McKenney is right in his element as an English Lord obsessed with American culture. It’s an incredibly broad performance, but he’s completely immersed in the character (a lovely change from his recent appearance in Grease which awkwardly crammed in references to his work as a judge on Dancing with the Stars).
Wayne Scott Kermond is similarly at home playing vaudevillian-style comedy as the not-so-terrifying gangster Moonface Martin, with Debora Krizak drawing just as many laughs as the vampish Erma.
And Gerry Connolly turns in a beautifully knowing, camp performance as the Captain (it could’ve been painful to watch Jones trying to match this) aided by Josh Gates who makes a few brief but memorable appearances as the Purser.
The costumes, by Dale Ferguson, are absolutely gorgeous and constructed with great attention-to-detail — particularly the elegant gowns for Hope — and although the set does seem a little on the cheap side for a full production at the Sydney Opera House, it’s been “adapted” and dressed up smartly by Ferguson.
The entertainment industry always dives headfirst into light and bright fluff in times of uncertainty or economic hardship. Anything Goes emerged in the midst of the Great Depression and it is again, in this production, the perfect distraction from a world gone slightly mad. Sometimes, that’s enough.