As a rule, I am not a big fan of musical theater. I want my mind engaged when I go to the theater, and the familiar tropes and clichés of most musicals work better than personal ohms to make me drift into mindlessness. There are exceptions to my taste aversion, the stellar standouts, which include anything by Stephen Sondheim, Rent, Roar of the Greasepaint, HAMILTON and a few others. But even as a director of educational theater, who helmed at least two musicals a year, I was hard to please.
Which is why I most often chose very difficult musicals for my students to perform – the very operatic Most Happy Fella and Sondheim’s dark and cynical Sweeney Todd, for example. I am a very tough customer. And I am not likely to trust local regional theater, wherever I might be.
Which is curious, considering that I lived for many years in the New Haven, CT, area, and I had access to some of America’s best regional theaters. I trusted Long Wharf Theatre, Hartford Stage, and Yale Repertory, whose productions I attended religiously. But except for one musical at Long Wharf that I rather liked (about an English teacher), I tended to head to New York when I wanted to check out a play for my kids or to see what was new in the musicals canon.
And that is how I failed to discover the Goodspeed Opera House.
Well, that is not exactly accurate. I knew about the Goodspeed. I had even been to the building and had walked the premises. But I had never gone inside, had never seen a production.
Until last week.
My good friend and colleague Denise Lute was featured as the batty Mrs. Harcourt in Anything Goes, and I decided it was time to take the leap, convincing my best buddy to drive with me from New York to Haddam. Well, blow Gabriel, blow and ain’t it de-lovely! If Anything Goes is an example of what’s been going on out there at the Goodspeed, then I have been a fool. Thank goodness I have lived long enough to get past my prejudices and enjoy this epiphany.
Anything Goes was absolute perfection, from start to finish, a joy to behold and a revelation of phenomenal talent.
Which, as Denise pointed out over dinner, should not be a surprise. After all, everyone in the cast has a host of impressive credits. “My Kingsley (Kingsley Leggs, who plays Eli J. Whitney, Mrs. Harcourt’s boyfriend)”, she averred, “was in Color Purple, Sister Act, etc., David (Harris, who plays the romantic lead) is a hot (and I mean HOT) star in Australia, and Rashidra (Scott), well, she’s here because Beautiful let her take a leave of absence. She’s got a feature role in that one!” High praise coming from Denise Lute, who works more than most actors I know, a veteran of the Actors’ Studio. Still, I would not have been so easily convinced. Anyone can make a resume sound far more impressive than it is.
But the cast gels in ensemble synchronicity from the stimulating opener to the rousing finish. Rashidra Scott is in almost every scene and leads the ensemble in dancing that runs the gambit from tap to jazz to ballet to salsa with her fleet feet dancing in perfect alignment with her megavoice. She really stands out.
Because she practically carries the show. But honestly, there’s not a bad apple in this crate. Every single person in the cast sings, dances, acts. Even Trixie, the dog Denise’s character carries compulsively through most of the play, is remarkable, so mellow she could have convincingly played a stuffed animal.
I would have preferred less mugging and ad-libbing by Stephen DeRosa, who plays Moonface Martin, Public Enemy #2, but that’s because I’m a writer (script sacrosanctity!) and a former acting teacher (be generous, babies; don’t steal the light); the crowd there loved him, and so he mugged harder and ad-libbed all the more vigorously.
To tell the truth, if I were to say to one person in the show “You’re the top,” it would be to choreographer Kelli Barclay. I haven’t seen dancing like this anywhere. The dance in this show was more than just a fun interlude. In many cases, the dance captured pieces of story that were not clearly elucidated or they underscored a subtext the audience could easily have missed. The book is simplicity itself, with no intricate story lines, no metaphorical messages to darken or clutter the story, but the characters might come off as stick figures or cartoons were it not for the choreography. Barclay’s choreography endows Reno Sweeny and Billy Crocker, and even Moonface Martin with a humanity that is not in the script, is not clear in the music.
One of the difficulties of a show like Anything Goes is that the vacuity of story and absence of characterization can leave the audience a bit numb. Even while they are having fun, they might be inclined to turn off a bit, to withhold investment in the people the actors are playing. Barclay’s dances ensure that the audience cares about all of them, even about the ensemble characters we hardly know at all.
Director Daniel Goldstein can take credit for opening a world and for making sure that all the elements of the production are of that world. The design of the set by Wilson Chin is simple but elegant, very old-school theatrical, with small revolves, wagons and flies providing a variety of sub-sets. The costumes by Ilona Somogyi are adorable, respectful of the bodies they adorn and time-period-appropriate, in colors that enhance the set design. Lights, by Brian Tovar are unnoticeable and flawless, but sound was slightly lacking, as there were whole chunks of dialogue that were inaudible or indiscernible where I was sitting in the front left orchestra.
Best of all, what Goldstein has achieved, what directors hope for and too often miss, is a cast and crew that loves being together, loves making this show, loves Cole Porter, loves everything about being in Haddam on the stage of the Goodspeed Opera House. That’s remarkable. It’s hard to pull off a show that’s based on the music of a beloved song writer and refrain from making it more than it is or less than it can be. An American in Paris on Broadway very graphically proved that to me. No one had any fun in that show, at least on the day I saw it. And the writers and director, in adding tried dark drama to the simple storyline, muddied the waters and detracted from the beauty of the music. The actors were great ballet dancers but could not act, and the dancing told no story. The play was merely an exhibition, a total disappointment. And the antithesis of Anything Goes.
Which taught me a valuable lesson. I must lose all NYC snobbery. Theater in the boondocks –like it or not, folks, the Goodspeed Opera House is in the idyllic boondocks, on the banks of the CT River – can be well worth the requisite battle to reach it through horrific Connecticut (worst in summertime) traffic.
It’s too late to see this production of Anything Goes, which closed June 16. But there will be other productions – check them out here. And be sure to watch for work by people like Rashidra Scott, Denise Lute, Daniel Goldstein, and Kelli Barclay.
Himself and Nora, an off-Broadway show about James and Nora Joyce, about which I was skeptical about until I realized it features Barclay’s choreography, sounds like a great prospect. There’s lots of subtext in that marriage to elucidate through dance. My guess is that it can’t miss.