If there is any musical that, like some plants, can be classified as a hardy perennial, it's ANYTHING GOES. It's a ship that's been sailing since 1934, with music and lyrics by Cole Porter and a book by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse. Yes, it's been heavily revised since the 30's, especially for its 1962, 1997 and 2011 Broadway revivals. Yes, the songs have been rearranged, replaced, and in some cases rewritten. But the SS American sails on, romantic woes, gangsters, and all, keeping audiences in stitches under one revision or another. (Considering that the originally intended plot included bomb threats, a shipwreck, and a desert island, we may be grateful that revisions started before the show ever premiered, sparing us from being told that ABC's "Lost" was based on an idea by P.G. Wodehouse.) Under the direction of Edward R. Fernandez at Ephrata Performing Arts Center, the ship is still sound and seaworthy.
The current production is close to the 2011 Broadway production with Sutton Foster as the well-loved Reno Sweeney, evangelist-turned-nightclub-star. Liz Frank, seen in EPAC's TOMMY last season, is a commendable Reno, singing and tapping her way to the heavens, backed by her quartet of "Angels". Her "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" is as fine as any seen lately, with some very neat choreography by Irving Gonzalez accentuating the number. Reno not only sounds wonderful and dances well, but she looks fabulous, every inch a nightclub star, and for that as well as other small miracles of fashion we must thank costume director Kate Willman; the costuming in this show is quite striking and some of the best seen on local stages this fall and winter. One is left quite confused as to how it is that Billy Crocker could possibly pass over Frank's Reno for anyone else, even debutante Hope Harrington.
Sean Deffley, as Billy Crocker, is a fine dancer, an attribute required for keeping up with Frank's Reno Sweeney. His singing is weaker, but that may well improve as the show runs. He's believable as the new-guy-on-Wall-Street anxious to please his boss, but more anxious to get the girl, who amazingly – though otherwise there would be no show – is not Reno. His boss, the myopic, inebriated Elisha Whitney, a man as prone to breaking into the Yale Boola as he is to breathing or drinking, is naturally on board the SS American and not expecting Billy to be there. Whitney, played by John Kleimo (last at EPAC in "The Night of the Iguana"), is a delight, hip flask at the ready, Yale cheer on his lips, and an aim at marrying the mother of Hope Harrington (Billy's inamorata) in his heart. Do not Miss Whitney's stuffed Yale bulldog; it's as present as Mrs. Harrington's own, real teacup pup (played with fine canine theatrical presence by newcomer Shelley), whose goal in life is to be missing from wherever it's supposed to be.
Hope, played by Valerie Schulz, is a beautiful and ephemeral thing, certainly the stuff of love songs – it simply seems doubtful that she's enough, as a real person, to hold Billy's attentions in the presence of a breathing, singing Reno, which is what this reviewer has always found to be the main flaw of the book. Schulz is herself lovely and carries off the dancing required of her well – however, as with Hope's own self, Schulz's singing seems just a bit thin against the charms of Reno. Hope is engaged to marry Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, on board the ship. Lord Evelyn is described in many discussions of the show as pompous; however, as played by Darren Wagner, he's oddly quirky and likeable, as well as very funny. Wagner is the dark horse in this production; rarely is Lord Evelyn this surprisingly delightful.
Bob Checchia as "Moonface" Martin and Jessica Henry as his moll, Erma, are the heart and soul of comical would-be evil. Martin provides fatherly criminal advice (and not the best of either) to Billy, while Erma discovers the joys of flirting with sailors as well as gangsters. They would be the comic relief of this show… if only the entire show were not comic relief of the funniest kind.
Kudos, once again, to costumer Kate Willman – but also to set designer Sheryl Liu. The big series of questions in any production of this show is "An ocean liner? Really? How?" Liu's SS American is a solid piece of stageworthy construction that succeeds in feeling like a ship as well as looking like one, as well as having various other pieces of the stage emerging from it to form staterooms. Its one possible drawback may be that it hides the orchestra – although matters improve throughout the production, the overture seemed slightly swallowed-up in its sound, as if everything weren't quite there. Fortunately, by "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," everything was together and the orchestra was as solid as the ship.