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‘Anything Goes’ is a cruise to show-tune paradise

Anything Goes is an emblematic musical, a chunky yarn in the fabric of American culture that has warmed audiences for 80 years. Nearly every song in the first act is a cherished part of the Great American Songbook. Whether you’re 30 or 70, you’ll find yourself singing along (in your head at least) and tapping your toes to Cole Porter’s clever lyrics and familiar tunes — including “I Get a Kick out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “Easy to Love,” “Friendship,” “It’s De-lovely,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” and of course, “Anything Goes.”

And the touring production at Milwaukee’s Marcus Center, through Jan. 11, sails along admirably, led by a young, energetic and talented cast that clearly gets a kick out of this evergreen piece of theater.

In days of old, Anything Goes had a rather incoherent book written by, among others, P.G. Wodehouse. But the script has been revised several times over the years, and the current iteration, by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman, is classic farce, complete with colorful stock characters, mistaken identities, absurd situations and all manner of hijinks and wordplay.

The narrative unfolds primarily on a London-bound cruise ship, where singer Reno Sweeney (Emma Stratton) has been booked to entertain a decidedly upscale crowd that’s disappointed by the lack of celebrities on board. When the ship launches, she’s madly in love with young stockbroker Billy Crocker (understudy Michael Santora performed the role on Wednesday, filling in for Brian Krinsky). Crocker’s heart, alas, belongs to Hope Harcourt (Rachelle Rose Clark), a young socialite aboard the ship with her English fiancée Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Richard Lindenfelzer), en route to their wedding.

In a snippet of plot straight from the movie Titanic, Hope really loves Billy, but is being forced into marrying Lord Evelyn by her mother Mrs. Evangeline Harcourt (Tracy Bidleman) for financial reasons. But before the ship crosses the pond, the young lovers have untangled their romantic knots and a double wedding is performed on deck.

This touring production doesn’t feature the usual veterans of Broadway and national tours, but rather a talented, hard-working troupe of regional theater alums on their way up in their careers. Perhaps it’s gratitude that inspires them to give their all and then some to create this entertaining production.

Key to the success of any production of Anything Goes is the vocal power and wattage of the actress playing the larger-than-life Reno, a role originated in 1934 by iconic Broadway belter Ethel Merman. The lithe and leggy Stratton kills the part. Her glorious voice smoothly veers from lyrical to brassy, lingering on each with equal skill. Her jazzy moves are delivered with balletic grace and her comic timing is impeccable.

In his outing as Billy, understudy Santora proved a smooth-mover and projected the charming innocence of a young Matthew Broderick. His chemistry with Stratton made it seem as if they’d been performing the roles together for months.

Other standouts are Mychal Phillips as the sex-obsessed Erma, Dennis Setteducati as teddy bear gangster Moonface Martin (whose goal in life is a higher ranking on the FBI’s most-wanted list) and Michael R. Douglass as millionaire and dirty old man Elisha Whitney.

But the greatest star of this production is director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall, especially in the latter position. Utilizing original moves and a panoramic eye, she staged the Act One finale “Anything Goes” with such driving momentum and surprising flourishes that the entire audience was on its feet well before the curtain reached the boards. 

On stage

Anything Goes continues through Sunday at the Marcus Center, 929 N. Water St. For tickets, call 414- 273-7206 or visit marcuscenter.org.

‘Anything Goes’

The acclaimed touring revival of Anything Goes sails into Milwaukee to kick off the New Year. The original Cole Porter musical has been reworked a number of times over the decades since its 1934 premiere, but this Tony Award-winning production keeps the things that make it work: madcap romantic hijinks at sea, larger-than-life characters and a score that includes some of musical theater’s greatest songs, from “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top” and back to the title track itself.

At the Marcus Center, 929 N. Water St. Tickets range from $25 to $95. Go to marcuscenter.org or 414-273-7206.

Jan. 6–11

Shirley Jones offers naked truth in new book

Shirley Jones opens the door to her house and appears every inch the ladylike Marian the librarian or sweet farm girl Laurey or cheerfully steady Mrs. Partridge, offering a warm smile and handshake.

Her elegant, modestly high-necked jacket is black, her makeup is discreet and her silver hair tidy. Jones’ living room has the sort of traditional furniture and knickknacks (exception: a prominent Academy Award) that would fit any suburban house.

It all adds up to the publicly familiar Shirley Jones, whose crystalline soprano voice and dewy prettiness made her an immediate star in the 1950s film versions of “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel” and who captured a subsequent generation of fans in TV’s “The Partridge Family” in the 1970s.

Then there’s “Shirley Jones,” her new autobiography – written with Wendy Leigh and published by Simon & Schuster’s Gallery Books imprint – that turns the 79-year-old actress’ image on its head in startling ways.

“So bring out the smelling salts, hang on to your hats, and get ready for the surprise of your lives!” she writes, coyly, in the book’s introduction. It’s not false advertising.

There’s a recounting of her early life and dazzling career that included working with two musical theater masters, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, as well as many of Hollywood’s top actors, including Marlon Brando (king of the retakes to exhaustion, Jones said), Jimmy Stewart (charmingly ditsy) and Richard Widmark (the only co-star she fell in love with).

But a substantial part of the book is spent on her troubled marriage to the late Jack Cassidy, the glossily handsome actor and singer whom she describes in a passage as her first lover and “sexual Svengali,” and whose lessons she shares candidly.

That includes – X-rated spoiler alert – Cassidy’s impressive endowment, Jones’ own “highly sexed” nature that made orgasms a breeze, their threesome with another woman (“yuck,” she says, when asked about the onetime experiment), Cassidy’s pre-marital sexual encounter with Cole Porter that Jones says left her unfazed, and her apparent tolerance for his infidelities.

The character of Marian, the spinsterish librarian in 1962’s “The Music Man,” another smash hit for Jones, “wasn’t me,” she said firmly.

And her autobiography makes that abundantly clear, although she says it took the passing of years for to bring such candor.

“I never would have written this book if I weren’t the age I am now,” she said.

So she’s grown-up enough to tell her story, and her admirers should be grown-up enough to read it?

“That’s exactly how I feel,” replied Jones.

She overturned her squeaky-clean image once before with her Oscar-winning portrayal of a vengeful prostitute in “Elmer Gantry” (1960) opposite Burt Lancaster, and the role that she considers her most important. It also brought backlash from her admirers.

“I got letters up the kazoo: ‘Why would you ever take a part like this?” Jones recalls.

Marty Ingels, the comedian who is her second husband of 35 years and counting, jokes that he is offended by her personal history.

“All that stuff she did with her husband (Cassidy), all those adventures …. I’m looking into the grounds of having my marriage annulled,” he said.

That draws a boisterous guffaw from Jones, whose loyalty to her outspoken, eccentric spouse has provoked speculation about how she could have jumped to Ingels from Cassidy, deeply troubled but unquestionably urbane.

Ingels lives up to his image by joining the conversation attired in a purple bathrobe and an oversized top hat with “HUSBAND” printed on it, and cracking jokes about being kept in an attic. Jones has a simple answer for doubters: Ingels makes her laugh every day and keeps life from being boring.

Her sexuality remains unabated, said the naturally youthful-looking Jones (healthy eating, daily exercise and no plastic surgery, she said). She is eager to quash the idea that age kills passion or friskiness.

“Luckily, Marty thinks I’ve still got a beautiful body, even though it is old, and every now and again I take all of my clothes off in front of him and shake my (breasts) at him, and he loves it,” Jones writes in her autobiography, using racy slang for “breasts.”

As she sees it, her own steady temperament made her crave an exciting, surprising partner, and both Cassidy and Ingels fit the description.

She met Cassidy as a 21-year-old small-town girl, a virgin, and “he taught me a lot about everything. Absolutely everything,” Jones said. “I learned about life with Jack, about parties with Jack, drinking with Jack, design with Jack. He was bright, well-read, smart.”

He was also repeatedly unfaithful to her, envious of her success and an inadequate father who late in life was diagnosed as bipolar, Jones said.

“Many people may say, ‘She was crazy. She did anything he wanted and it wasn’t good for her, wasn’t good for the kids, wasn’t good for the people around her,’” she said. “I’m going to get a lot of that … but it was my life and it was the way I wanted to live it.”

Her autobiography begins innocently enough, with Jones born in Charleroi, Pa., and moving as a toddler to Smithton, Pa., where her father helped run the family-owned brewery, the Jones Brewing Co.

She describes herself as a rebellious tomboy, “wild, willful and independent,” who became obsessed with movies and their stars but intended to turn her love of animals into a career as a veterinarian. Talent intervened.

In 1953, on a post-high school graduation trip to New York with her parents, a friend introduced her to an agent who, immediately impressed, told her to attend an open audition with John Fearnley, the casting director for the songwriting team of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

After “going for broke” and singing “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” a voice from the theater called out to Jones on stage, “Where are you from? And what have you done before?”

“Smithton, and nothing,” Jones recalls as her flustered reply.

She received a part in the chorus for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” and then, a year later, the starring role in the duo’s “Oklahoma!” – as well as the title of “Hollywood’s new Cinderella,” as Jones recounts in her book.

With the end of the big-screen musical era, Jones fought for recognition as a serious actress to win the role in “Elmer Gantry” and other dramatic fare. “The Partridge Family,” about a widow and her musical family and co-starring David Cassidy, allowed her to work in Los Angeles and be home at night with her young children.

She didn’t see Hollywood as exciting, Jones insisted. It was work, which she left behind each day when she returned to her roles as wife and mother.

“I liked my job, but when I came home, I never thought of it,” said Jones, who still takes on occasional theater, movie and TV roles.

Of the many photos scattered around her house, all but one – a group shot showing the triumphant Jones and Lancaster on Oscar night – are of children and grandchildren.

Jones had a chance to reflect on her life anew while recording the audio version of “Shirley Jones.”

“What came to me is, ‘I did this, and obviously I loved it when I was doing it,” she said. “I had a great time. I have no regrets whatsoever.”

Hayford brings his songbook to Madison

If there is such a thing as an archeology of music, its primary researcher must be Chicago cabaret musician Justin Hayford. The out singer/pianist will unearth his latest findings over Mother’s Day weekend during twin concerts at the Capitol Theater inside Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts.

Hayford, 41, specializes in the Great American Songbook, loosely described as covering works from the 1930s and ’40s. On May 7, Hayford will perform “It All Belongs to You: Unsung Cole Porter,” featuring rare gems from the archives of the man who many feel was America’s greatest songwriter. On May 8 – Mother’s Day – Hayford will entertain audiences with “Songs Your Mother Should Have Taught You,” a new program of obscure numbers that offer advice on topics from health to finances to sleeping habits.

Both cabaret-style concerts take place on the Capitol Theater stage and include a meal catered by Fresco, the Food Fight Inc. restaurant that sits atop the Overture Center. Featuring items such a pear Gorgonzola tarts, Champagne-poached prawns, beef tournedos and strawberry shortcake, Fresco’s menu is as appetizing and fulfilling as Hayford’s unfamiliar, but soon-to-be memorable repertoire.

“My interest in obscure songs began at the same time I developed an interest in singing in my late 20s,” says Hayford, who was born in Rochester, N.Y., and comes from a musical family. “I went to cabaret shows to see what everyone else was singing, and it was all the same songs. Since I wasn’t very confident in my ability to sing or play or – horror of horrors – do both at the same time, I needed some other ‘hook’ to make myself stand out.”

Hayford’s research found him combing various archives for forgotten songs, including the works of popular tunesmiths such as Porter, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen and Dorothy Fields. Over time, Hayford uncovered a wealth of materials, including some exceptional works that rarely see the light of day. Why some songs survive and some don’t can be a mystery.

“Sometimes the answer is obvious,” Hayford says. “Hugh Martin’s ‘I’m Not So Bright’ was written for ‘Look Ma, I’m Dancing,’ a 1948 musical that bombed. And when a show bombs, the score tends to disappear.”

Such was not the case, Hayford says, with Porter’s “You Irritate Me So,” from the musical “Let’s Face It.” The 1942 show was a hit, and yet that song, along with a host of others, disappeared. They lay waiting for years to be unearthed by enterprising entertainers like Hayford who, to paraphrase Porter, are looking to make all songs old new again.

“I’d say I have found the most obscure stuff among Cole Porter’s and Irving Berlin’s catalogues, largely because those two guys were incredibly prolific,” Hayford says. “But I also have an enormous soft spot for Rogers and Hart, in large part because Lorenz Hart wrote extraordinarily powerful lyrics when he really set his mind to it.”

In addition to his musical career, Hayford works as a legal advocate with the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago. The musician represents PWAs both from a legal and advocacy perspective, acting on behalf of those too sick, scared or uninformed to handle their own challenges.

“I started working with the agency in 1991 because it was clear to me that one of the most important arenas in which to work towards social justice was the AIDS epidemic,” Hayford says. “And that remains true today.”

Hayford’s AIDS advocacy career parallels the rise in his musical career, and the two successfully co-exist. Both started as departures for the musician-activist, who once studied astrophysics at Northwestern University.

“Heck, I enjoy everything about my musical work,” Hayford says. “I enjoy digging around to find songs. I enjoy practicing them for hours and hours.  And I enjoy finally performing them for audiences.”

Hayford also enjoys finding and promoting the works of obscure artists, such as Matt Dennis, a singer, big band leader, pianist, vocal coach and songwriter during the 1940s. Dennis used his less-than-strong voice to great effect, Hayford says, and his hits “Angel Eyes” and “Will You Still Be Mine” have become jazz standards.

“The first time I heard Matt Dennis, I was instantly struck by the ease with which he sang,” Hayford says. “He seemed to be tossing everything off, yet knowing exactly how to make everything land. I’ve done my best to steal everything he’s got.”