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'Anything Goes' simply sails

WILLIAMSTOWN -- Desperate for a hit to revive his Depression-sunk fortunes, producer Vinton Freedly concocted a big shipboard musical in 1934, built around the even bigger voice of its star, a young Ethel Merman. But Roger Rees's trim, stylish production for the mainstage of his Williamstown Theatre Festival proves that this durable show doesn't have to be big to succeed. For ``Anything Goes," apparently, anything goes.

True, Sharon Lawrence doesn't have anything near Merman's pipes. But Lawrence -- beloved to ``NYPD Blue" fans as Andy Sipowicz's wife, Sylvia, and, more relevantly, possessing a substantial stage background -- gives Merman's role, evangelist-turned-nightclub singer Reno Sweeney, a warmth and charm that carry her through all but the loudest numbers.

Director Rees wisely doesn't push Lawrence beyond her capabilities; she has to sing ``I Get a Kick Out of You" only once, not twice as in many stagings, and she delivers it with tenderness, presence, and style. Here, as in her sweet and snappy opening duet with Matt Cavenaugh on ``You're the Top" and later with Malcolm Gets in a funny and sexy ``Let's Misbehave," the charismatic Lawrence shows how a performer can make the most of what she's got, rather than trying to be someone she isn't. Only in what should be Reno's show-stoppers, ``Blow, Gabriel, Blow" and the title tune, does Lawrence's inability to belt out above the band diminish the effect.

Cavenaugh twinkles and pops as Billy Crocker, especially in the comic numbers; he sounds too nasal in ``All Through the Night," but the pure, clear tones of Nikki Renee Daniels, playing opposite him as Hope, nearly make up for that. Cavenaugh's at his best when he's kidding around with Lawrence or hamming it up with the disguised gangster and his moll that the inescapably ridiculous plot provides for him.

In those roles, Remy Auberjonois brings babyfaced guile and flawless comic timing to the hapless Moonface Martin, a.k.a. Public Enemy No. 13, and Catherine Brunell is just terrific as Bonnie: great voice, sharp dancing, and a finely honed ear for a joke. Gets amuses in the obligatory upperclass-twit part of Sir Evelyn Oakleigh, and Sandra Shipley has a grand time as the grande dame.

The reworked book (based on one of many versions , the 1962 revision) also finds a way around the badly dated ``Chinese convert" characters by spreading the ethnic stereotyping around. Now they're Italian guys pretending to be Chinese, and there are also a couple of silly German tourists in the chorus.

Rees and designer Neil Patel put the whole motley crew, costumed with a fine eye for 1930s detail by Kaye Voyce, on a simple, elegant sketch of an ocean liner. Patel uses bold signal-flag colors to suggest a porthole here, a smokestack there, and two slanting planes of deep blue at the rear as the sea -- and as a convenient onstage perch for the lively band, snazzily led by Edward Barnes.

The overall effect is clean, sharp, and unfussy. Like the performances and the no-frills choreography, it's not big or fancy. But when you're staging Cole Porter, that's just de-lovely.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at

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