The world has gone mad today and good’s bad today and black’s white today and day’s night today— and the show today you should see today— well, God knows…it’s Anything Goes! Springing up on Silhouette Stage’s stages as the second show of their 2018/2019 season, Cole Porter’s classic ship-set musical is setting sail this spring! Directed by Conni Ross with Musical Direction by William Georg and Choreography by Tina Marie DeSimone, this buoyant slap-happy musical will keep you afloat all through the evening with talented voices, a dazzling set, and some of the cleanest and most pristine tapping this side of Columbia.
Director Conni Ross has taken a step back to the 1987 rewritten revival version of Anything Goes, a rare choice in the era of the more recent 2011 reshuffled revival. And while the choice may be questionable to some, the production as a whole is much enjoyable, though not without its struggles and hiccups along the way. Ross, in an attempt to neutralize the potentially racist overtones inherently scripted into the show, replaces the two Chinese gambling characters with women called Mary (Dana Bonistalli) and Lucy (Amelia Bonistalli.) Surprisingly enough, this serves the show well, right up until the awkward moment where Moony coerces them into a game of strip poker. Otherwise, Ross’ decision to adjust the show, making it ultimately more palatable for the audience, seems to work fine. Her quaint introductory framework to the show is a nice touch as well; Ross uses the overture to setup the notion of old-fashioned movie credits, with each principal character marching on, snatching up a life-preserver from a sailor with their name painted on it, popping their head through it, and then walking off before the show gets underway.
The show’s main struggle is the disconnect between the three principals. At times it feels like Reno Sweeney (Robyn Bloom), Billy Crocker (Jim Gross) and Moonface Martin (Todd Hochkeppel) exist in three separate shows that have been jammed together on one stage with the unifying theme of being some part of somebody’s vision of Anything Goes. While each of these talented performers bring strengths to the table— Bloom has a robust and rich voice that is well-suited for the lounge-singer nature of Reno, Gross has a voice that readily parlays his character’s emotions at the drop of a note, and Hochkeppel is awash in physical tomfoolery— there is something about the way their portrayals of these roles doesn’t quite click with one another and with other characters and moments throughout the show. It’s difficult to articulate the notion, because on their own, Hochkeppel’s over-the-top Moonface, Gross’ aloof Billy, and Bloom’s seasoned Reno seem to work just fine. It’s only when they come into contact with one another and with others that the disconnect seems present and ultimately disjointed.
Bloom’s Reno is reminiscent of a cabaret performer in the sense that the songs are strong, but the character that exists outside of those singing moments is somehow absent. Bloom brings gusto and an honestly glorious sound to numbers like “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” and “Anything Goes.” She even keeps impressive pace with the dancers in these numbers, but there is just something missing during her scenes, and her various duets and trios with Billy and Moonface. Hochkeppel presents Moonface with such intense cartoonish force that his character is almost a living caricature of Mel Blanc a la Looney Toons. What’s baffling is how dialed back the shtick and shenanigans are during Hochkeppel’s solo, “Be Like the Bluebird”, the one place where the character is expected to be a flaming beacon of comic nonsense. Gross, whose hysterical antics whilst in various guises are truly a delight, feels distant at times and although he sings beautifully, he seems to struggle a bit with finding the emotional depth of certain numbers. These imbalances are present throughout the production and make for a very surreal viewing experience.
The show’s two other issues are nestled in design work. Lighting Designer Mark Scanga seems to have gotten nighttime and daytime all mixed up; this is glaringly odd during the ‘night scene’ which happens before “Let’s Misbehave” and there’s full light on the stage, the same as during daytime scenes. The romantic red backflush and red specials in the banister-wrapped twinkle lights during “De-Lovely”, though well-intended, detracts from the beautiful moonlight over which the lovebirds on deck are swooning. To Scanga’s credit, the twinkle-lights wrapped around the banister are primarily white and add a lovely touch of decadence to the show’s stunning set.
Set Designer Alex Porter, along with Scenic Decorators and Painters Jessie Krupin and Bill Pond, have created a marvelous masterpiece when it comes to the two-tiered ship deck. The precision and pristine attention to detail on both ship deck levels as well as various set pieces really adds to the overall pleasing aesthetic of the show. Take note of the lavish Vegas-style fanned out headboard on the stately bed inside Whitney’s cabin and the full burgundy and gold color used there, and also of the subtler burgundy and gold triangles painted delicately on the bunk beds in Moonface Martin’s cabin. The set is almost like a character in this production, standing tall and proud and really amping up the production value of the show.
Truly a conundrum is the costume work featured in the performance. Costume Designer Tommy Malek, with assistance from Amy Haynes Rapnicki and Conni Ross, is unevenly distributed. For every stellar costume and wig pairing— and in this show there are so many— there seems to be an equal mismatch that just fails to connect to the character and the actor on which its placed. Members of the ensemble or featured players often end up with sensational looking outfits and hairstyles while many of the principals find themselves with colors and styles that are unflattering, despite being of the era.
Malek does a disservice to Mrs. Harcourt (Heidi Toll) by placing her in a platinum/silver blonde wig, making her look much too old to be the young ingénue’s mother. But by the same token, the superb black wig featured on Bonnie perfectly suits the character. The wardrobe featured on Bonnie is actually the most astonishing series of costumes seen in the show, perfectly fitted and styled for the Bonnie character and the actress, with each dress more flattering and era appropriate than the last.
Malek, Rapnicki, and Ross manage to mis-costume Reno Sweeney in the first act with outfits that just look strange (in particular that scarlet-ruby affair, largely because it doesn’t mesh well with her vibrant red wig) but in the second act give her outfits that are impeccably perfect for the character’s demeanor. The same is true for Hope Harcourt’s outfits, with most of her dresses washing out the actress or falling on her figure in a shapeless fashion. The most regrettable issue of all is the extreme amount of noticeable wrinkles on key costumes. With three costumers on hand, this feels like an unacceptable distraction— Reno’s sapphire dress, Hope’s wedding dress, Billy’s sailor pants (especially when all the other sailor pants are so crisply pressed) just to name a few— and ultimately deters the audience’s attention from the brilliant singing and dancing happening on the stage. But on the other hand, the trio of costumers do a sensational job picking out polka dot dresses for Reno’s Angels, which continues to confuse the mind because there seems to be no rhyme or reason to these costume successes and failures.
Problems aside there are truly sensational reasons to enjoy this production of Anything Goes. A prize standout includes the choreography of Tina Marie DeSimone. Elevating community theatre choreography to the level of precision which DeSimone has displayed here is no small feat; the tap number alone in “Anything Goes” rightfully earns its uproarious audience ovation. There’s a fair bit of fancy footwork happening in “Heaven Hop” led by the magnificent Bonnie, and again some more sassy flair featured during “Take Me Back to Manhattan” and “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.” The moves are crisp, the tap-work (including the cane-gripped tap-kickline in “Take Me Back to Manhattan”) is precise, and the dancers are engaging. A special shout out is deserved of Marcie Prince, playing Chastity, one of Reno’s Angels, as she is perpetually smiling through every single step of each dance routine, and executes them without a hint of worry or nerves. The Angels*— Charity, Chastity, Purity, Virtue, Devine, and Harmony, played by Lisa Rigsby, Marcie Prince, Maggie Mellott, Triana McCorkle, Abby McDonough, and Miranda Snyder respectively— are a critical component to the success of DeSimone’s choreography.
Of note in the ensemble, Lawrence Custis as the stalwart and no-nonsense Purser and Passengers played by Christine Benkoski and Brent Benkoski, come to mind. Custis has a few incidental one-liners that really kick the plot forward, but are delivered with such hard verve that they become humorous in their straight-laced delivery. Benkoski and Benkoski (a mommy-to-be and her young son) are just too precious for words. Often when a pair of ensemble background characters continually catches the eye, it’s considered distracting, but not with Benkoski and Benkoski! Little Mr. Brent Benkoski is beyond adorable, dragging his mommy all around the crowd scenes, and even more precocious when he’s twirled around by Bonnie in her “Let’s Step Out” solo.
Rebecca Hanauer as the simplistic ingénue character, Hope Harcourt, delivers a surprising depth in her portrayal of Hope. There is a cheekiness that Hanauer brings to the role which is situated right at the forefront of her presentation. It is most palpable and pleasantly present when she’s flirting, unashamedly and unabashedly, with Billy (Jim Gross.) With a dulcet voice that doesn’t fall into the stereotypical trappings of “gooey winsome ingénue”, Hanauer creates an enjoyable individual out of Hope, especially when she throws down a hard line at Billy Crocker come the top of the second act. Her duets with Crocker, “It’s De-Lovely” and “All Through The Night” showcase her vocal talent and bring emotional fortitude to the center of her character.
Truly a knockout in the supporting role of Sir Evelyn Oakleigh, Ryan Geiger will give the whole audience hot pants for his exquisite portrayal before the night is out. With a proverbial monocle in his throat, Geiger delivers a lively and yet simultaneously reserved rendition of this ‘jolly-hockey-sticks’ British comportment. Playing the character with just the right balance between comedy and straight-laced sincerity, Geiger cultivates a fascinating individual out of Oakleigh, when all the hazards of the character point toward melodramatic foppishness. His seasick noises are hilarious, but not in an overdone fashion, and his overall execution of the befuddled yet eager-to-learn nature of the character is extremely enjoyable. Though having just one half of a duet, “Let’s Misbehave”— a number shared with Reno (who again vocally delivers quite the astonishing series of songs)— Geiger gets a chance to showcase his smooth and sensual vocals in this instance.
The show-stopping, triple threat in this production is Bonnie (Maddie Bohrer.) A singing sensation, with dashing dancer’s moves, and a character commitment that cements her crown for queen of the show, Bohrer is the tops— she’s the coliseum! Bohrer’s Bonnie is bursting with bubbly buoyancy and radiating a thousand smiles both on her face and in her voice. Costumed beyond perfection, Bohrer looks the part, sounds the part, delivers the part, and almost makes the show’s faults disappear entirely when she starts her high-flinging dance-work and extraordinary vocal work during “Heaven Hop.” There’s no stopping Bohrer, who takes point on “Let’s Step Out” and really makes her comic moments count, especially when it comes to her interactions with Moonface Martin.
With such stellar dancing and sensational performances, it’s hard to let the faults that exist in this show deter one from wanting to see it. The Run Crew (led by Stage Manager Donna Hawkes and Assistant Stage Manager Robyn Levy) is on point, creating lighting quick changes during the paced intervals of the pre-recorded orchestral interstitials. The pace is up, the dancing’s de-lovely, and there are some truly impressive performances given over the course of the evening. Set sail aboard the S.S. Silhouette Stages with their production of Anything Goes, as it’s one for the books.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
Anything Goes plays through March 24, 2019 at Silhouette Stages performing at Slayton House Theatre in Wilde Lake Village Center— 10400 Cross Fox Lane, in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 637-5289, or purchase them online.
*at this performance the Angel ‘Prudence’ (Tori Worth) was not present due to a prior scheduling conflict.