The show began innocently enough—Billy, a young man, impulsively stowaways on an ocean liner to England in hopes of winning the heart of a young lady, Hope, who happens to be engaged to a British aristocrat. Billy is accompanied in his high jinks by: a two-bit gangster named Moonface, a nightclub singer named Reno, and a saucy wannabe named Bonnie.
At first it was difficult to hear Reno’s (Ashley Harmon) vocals over the band, but as the play went on, she seemed to become more confident in her delivery. By the end of the evening she was carrying me away with “Take Me Back to Manhattan”. Until I stepped foot in the Theatre Factory, I had never viewed a production of Anything Goes, although I was familiar with Cole Porter songs. It’s these songs: “It’s Delovely”, “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” and “You’re the Top” that are the show’s magic. Cole Porter’s lyrics are emotive without being overdone, and the cast and band did his work justice.
Also of note was the ambitious choreography of the group dance numbers specifically for the song “Bon Voyage” and “Anything Goes”. Billy (Jeff Johnston) appeared especially in command of his dancing on the song “Friendship”. There was unfortunately, a young sailor character in the chorus who appeared to one to two beats behind in every dance number. This issue was made all the more obvious by the look of horror on this young man’s face as he struggled to keep up. I am certain that this is a case where a better policy would be for him to act as if he knew what he was doing. He was in one of the back lines for the dance numbers, and I wouldn’t have caught on if he had just kept grinning.
Despite some of the strengths of the production detailed above, I keep coming back to the question of why the musical was staged in the first place. Theater plays an essential role in our culture. Theater shows us idealized worlds, and reflects our lived experience and stories. Theater can be transcendent. Why then did the producers at the Theatre Factory choose to stage a musical replete with racist caricature, a joke about a potential lynching, and a plot dependent on women as chattel? One should look to the current revival of Shuffle Along as an example of how to revive a play with dated stereotypes. The producers of that show kept many of the numbers in the current show while adapting the book to modern values. The production I viewed of Anything Goes offered no context or commentary to the most offensive parts. As someone who was obviously swept up in the action on stage, to experience Act Two of the show was to have a metaphorical ice bucket dumped on my head.
The major plot point of the musical hinged on both Billy’s and Moonface’s escape from the ship’s brig (below deck holding cell) disguised in the garb of Chinese passengers. It was in this costume that Billy and Moonface put on garbled, accented Chinese and pantomimed the mannerism of Chinese immigrants. It was also in this scene that the negotiation of Hope’s marriage to one of the “Chinese” immigrants was cemented.
What is a viewer to gain from viewing Anything Goes? What was the intended takeaway for the audience? Yes, a musical that merely entertains does still have value, but what are we to make of a musical that perpetuates dated caricature? What are we to make of an audience that cheers and laughs at the actors aping as Chinese?
To this critic, it was obvious the time and effort that all involved put into this production, and I believe their talents could have been put to better use. The strength of the play was in the comedic performances of the aristocrat Sir Evelyn (Adam Seligson), Bonnie (Alyssa Bruno) and Moonface (Matthew Fawcett). These actors did justice to comedic lines that could have fallen flat without their sense of charm and command of timing. The stage production crew is also to be commended for the creative set design, which made great use of a small stage by skillfully creating the above and below deck scenery.
Special thanks to the Theatre Factory for complimentary press tickets. Would you like to see more articles and reviews like this from Pittsburgh in the Round? Then help us out and donate to our indiegogo!
Catch Anything Goes at Trafford’s Theatre Factory until July 24th. For tickets and more information, click here.