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