Photo credit: Michele Anliker
When I was young, about seven, my oldest sister was in a musical at our local high school. I remember my mother dragging me to see it, and I was less than enthusiastic. Little did I know at the time, I would begin to fall in love with theater that very day, as I sat in to watch their production of “Anything Goes,” a timeless classic by the great Cole Porter. Of course, being a young age, the memory comes and goes in spurts, but those memories slowly flickered back into my head as I watched The Encore Musical Theatre Company’s production of the same name.
Nostalgia is in season right now, and this company’s direction, under that of Thalia V, Schramm, certainly knows the daunting task of delivering on the Porter name. Not only do you have to possess the pipes to deliver such high varieties of range, you also need to have the physicality to bound around the stage in showstopping, musical tap dance numbers (which, after seeing the act one finale, will all but leave you breathless). They have all that and more.
For those of you familiar with the show, or seeing it for the first time, you’ll be transported back to the S.S. American in 1934, just a few years shy of when “Gone With The Wind” would make its theatrical debut. The lead characters, Billy Crocker (Sebastian Gerstner, in another top notch performance) and, equally, Reno Sweeney (Olivia Hernandez, a character actress with the perfect amount of glutz) are about as iconic as Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, respectively. As the show opens, Crocker is wise guy Wall Street broker and he’s fallen in love at first sight. His boss, the blundering, often, drunk Elisha J. Whitney (an exceptional Jeff Steinhauer) is preparing to make a business deal in London, and is traveling aboard the American. Evangelist turned nightclub singer, Sweeney will be on board the same ship. Billy only sees Reno as a friend, but she obviously has feelings for him.
The set up only continues as Crocker heads to send off his boss, and Reno, for a safe trip when he stumbles upon that heavenly women he has googly eyes over. Sadly for him, she’s an heiress by the name of Hope Harcourt (a beautiful Emily Hadick) and is on her way to England with her persnickety finance Lord Evelyn Oakleigh - fans of the Encore’s last production of “Sweeney Todd” will be ecstatic to see David Moan is back on the block in a fun, scene stealing, performance that is a cross between one of the Marx brothers and Nigel Thornberry - and man does he work and twirl that mustache.
Naturally, Crocker becomes a stowaway on the ship in hopes of having a chance in vying for Hope’s affection. Meanwhile a slimy “Moonface” Martin, (a well, comedically, timed Dan Morrison), a second rate gangster that is, hilariously, ranked “Public Enemy #13” and his girlfriend Erma (Elizabeth Jaffe) have snuck themselves on as a minister and a missionary and aided, innocently, by Billy, have stranded the real ship’s chaplain back at the port. It’s a common case of mistaken identities, a theme which thrives throughout the production.
There are many more characters, and plenty of subplots to keep the pace of this show moving - it clocks in at a breezy two hours and thirty minutes - but the real crux, as always, is the music. Classic tunes in the vein of “De-Lovely,” “You’re The Top,” “Friendship” and my personal favorite, “The Gypsy in Me” - the latter of which is staged in such an episodic fashion, there’s no doubt it’s going to be a comedic highlight for the audience that evening - are incredible. The rhythm and tempo is only bolstered by the musical direction of Encore regular Tyler Driskill, who handles his seasoned orchestra well (as if the man is ever bad); Choreographer Rachel Costantino had one of the toughest jobs bringing these toe-tapping numbers to life. As I mentioned earlier, the act one finale is such a revelation you’d almost think the show could end there. Most times, the cast is able to utilize the whole stage, which isn’t as intimate as their last production, but Production Designer Kristen Gribbin has created a steady canvas to allow these talented performers to work, which is made up of many Encore and regional theater alums. Most of them taking on multiple roles as sailors or featured dancers. They work just as hard as the principal actors. Oh, and a kudos is in order for the costume design of Sharon Larkey Urick, because coming up with a slick design and a vintage 1930s look can’t be easy.
The only thing I could find wrong in this delightful show, really doesn’t have anything to do with the direction, but in the writing - and it’s a hotly debated topic whenever this show is done. And that has to deal with the characterization of Luke. Peter Dannug does a fine job, it’s just the stereotypes and borderline offensive take on Chinese citizens feels a tad dated, signaling that when Porter wrote the show, these type of things were likely more accepted. Not to say it takes away from the show, which it doesn’t, it’s just something with “Anything Goes” that’s always seemed to rub me the wrong way.
In any case, The Encore has manage to strike gold again and if you’re looking for that first big musical to introduce to your children, “Anything Goes” at the Encore is a good start. There was a young girl in attendance during my performance, and she was eating it up like the eye candy it is. I know I was grateful to be introduced to this show at a young age, and Schramm and her company have done a fine job at making sure their production checks all the boxes of quality theatre.
IF YOU GO:
“Anything Goes” continues it’s run through December 23rd at The Encore Musical Theater Company in Dexter MI. For tickets and showtimes call the box office at 734-268-6200 or visit www.encoretheatre.org/tickets/