The champagne may not be top shelf but it certainly isn't flat
Given that this Opera Australia/John Frost co-production has cast the almost too-perfect, Caroline O’Connor as the sassy broad Reno Sweeney, and comes off two Rogers and Hammerstein successes, you’d be forgiven for expecting the world of this show. You won’t want your money back, but neither are you getting the best this musical can offer.
The story of a rag-tag bunch of toffs and crims stuck on a luxury ocean-liner has had a fairly chequered performance history in this country. It wasn’t a great success initially, but has since seen some memorable productions, notably the crisp and sophisticated late ’80s one with Geraldine Turner and Simon Burke.
This time we have a remount of the 2011 Lincoln Center production, and is directed here by Dean Bryant – who has surely become the most ubiquitous director of musicals in the country. He’s a frustratingly inconsistent captain though, sometimes sailing to utter victory – note the recent triumph of Sweet Charity – and sometimes running aground. Anything Goes isn’t exactly the Costa Concordia, but it’s not all smooth sailing either.
The main problem is tonal. Cole Porter’s charm, his perfect mix of the sublime and the ridiculous, is dependent on exact measurements. Bryant is far too liberal with the vaudeville, while skimping fatally on the sophistication. It’s more Spumante than Verve.
What it does have, and it’s undeniably contagious, is heaps of energy. The first act closes with a rendition of the title song that redefines exuberance, and is a joy to behold. The second act opens with one of Porter’s finest moments, the bizarre and frankly audacious piss-take of religion and privilege that is 'Blow Gabriel, Blow'. Seeing O’Connor mounting a crucifix will be a tough image to erase.
Most of the cast are great. Todd McKenney nails Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, his entire performance a slow build to the moment he unleashes “the gypsy in me”. Deborah Krizak is a constant hoot as the not-so-dumb gangster moll Erma, and Gerry Connolly all but steals the show as the ship’s captain. His delivery always seems on the verge of hysteria, and his delicious conducting of the crew is a sight to behold. (One can only pity the poor Sydneysiders who will have to endure Alan Jones in the role).
Not all of the performances work. Wayne Scott Kermond plays Moonface Martin with the kind of jittery exaggeration that would have looked dated in the ’30s, and his rendition of the ‘Chinaman’ is so racist it’s jaw-dropping. Bryant is largely to blame for this complete failure of taste, bringing to mind Mickey Rooney’s abhorrent performance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Surely, times have changed.
Of course, the star is O’Connor, and she is nothing short of a knock-out. From her opening number, 'I Get a Kick Out of You', she dazzles the crowd with her combination of power and fragility. She’s the kind of performer who can be awe-inspiring and daggy all at once, and she moulds Reno into a grand lady of misrule. Without her, the show would hardly be worth it.
That in itself is telling. Much has been made about the assembly of this show, and it will no doubt prove a hit, but there is something slapdash and approximate about it. The sets [the clearly hamstrung Dale Ferguson] look cheap, although the costumes [Ferguson again] are terrific. The lighting [Matt Scott] is simply bright all the time. Nothing has nuance or craftsmanship.
Anything Goes will always be entertaining; it’s a literal blast from the past. But this production needs a lot more Strauss and less Mickey Mouse. In the words of one of its catchiest list songs, it may not be a flop, but neither is it the top.
Tickets available as part of Opera Australia 2015 subscriptions from August 11.