Let's be clear about this. The audience at last Saturday's performance of Anything Goes, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' current musical, was downright rapturous. They ate the production up with a spoon. So here at the outset, it's only fair to state that if you want to brighten your holiday season with a brassy, mindless, Cole Porter-tune-filled confection, you might well have a de-lovely time at the Loretto-Hilton Center.
But speaking personally -- and I know I'm swimming against the tide of popular opinion -- let me add the Scroogelike caveat that I found the production an immense disappointment. Perhaps my expectations were too high, for I always assumed that a Rep musical directed by Victoria Bussert was a slam-dunk. Her productions of Into the Woods, A Little Night Music and She Loves Me are among the Rep's recent highlights. But Anything Goes does not approach their caliber.
Why is that? Perhaps because Into the Woods, A Little Night Music and She Loves Me are real musicals. Anything Goes used to be a real musical, but in the six decades since its 1934 debut, it has been plundered and pillaged like a ship foundering on shoals. The cut-and-paste hybrid on view at the Rep should be retitled Anything Goes: The 1987 Version, for that's when it was foisted on an unknowing public.
The gossamer story hasn't changed. It still focuses on an Atlantic Ocean crossing. Billy Crocker has stowed away to pursue a beautiful debutante engaged to a stuffy English lord. Add to this ship of fools a hardnosed nightclub singer and an on-the-lam gangster disguised as a minister, and you have not a substantive plot but at least a clothesline from which to hang an effervescent Cole Porter score that has produced four bona fide American standards.
Apparently four is not enough, because this '87 version crams in still more Porter tunes. Tuneful and familiar though they are, not a one enhances the musical. Sadly, when it comes to defacing this show, anything does go. But if some of the new songs are problematic, the most glaring concern lies with the new book, which reduces the story to a series of one-line gags. Inexplicably, the Rep actors have been directed to play those corny gags for laughs that simply do not exist. (Is there anything more embarrassing than watching an actor hold for a laugh that doesn't arrive?)
Then too, John Ezell's scenic design lacks his usual élan. In the opening scene, the view through the Carlyle Hotel window probably is supposed to be clouds, but it looks like the Hindenburg exploding over New York City. When the action moves to the ship, the double-deck set has its own limitations, most notably in stairs that seem to be too narrow for the actors. It's a curious thing about onstage stairs. If an actor is so unsure of his footing that he has to look down, he breaks that necessary connection with the audience, and it can take some time to restore it. These stairs do not appear to be actor-friendly.
Another flaw -- and an alarming one, because it's been the Achilles heel of far too many Rep productions of late -- is that the casting is soft at the center. Nancy Hess' sassy nightclub chanteuse lacks sass, and Hunter Bell's Crocker is too lacking in color to sustain interest. Little surprise then, that Steve Routman as Moonface Martin (a.k.a. Public Enemy Number Thirteen) puts the production in his pocket. While everyone else is racing the clock (speed, by the way, does not equal style), Routman takes his time and gets his laughs.
Although for four decades now its various producers have believed that you cannot stuff Anything Goes with too many hit melodies, ironically the show's one surefire song never made the hit parade. Moonface's rendition of "Be Like the Bluebird," which he sings to Billy Crocker late in Act 2, stopped the show when Victor Moore sang it in 1934, it stopped the show when Andy Devine croaked his way through it at the Muny in 1960 and it stops the show here.
Yet -- disturbingly -- as Routman is singing this foolproof ditty, Bell has been directed to pretend to laugh, as if the performance is so funny he no longer can remain in character. It's a cheap, clearly contrived effect, and Bell lacks the craft to make it seem spontaneous. This phony, stifled laugh is an insult to Routman, who needs no help from anyone to sell his song. But it's also an insult to the audience, because it suggests that director Bussert is more concerned with manipulating us than with entertaining us. Like so many who have gone before her, she, too, is guilty of having shortchanged Anything Goes.