If your mind works like mine does, you likely spend a great deal of time wondering what future generations will think of us. Optimism would have us believe that cultural norms and societal progress will evolve for the better, but then reality sets in: What if future-folks praise Emerald Mine Space Karen as he continues to promote bigotry on the world’s largest platform? Will they laud the scrappy fighters for justice or praise the self-mythologizing “captains of industry” who widened the gap of inequality? And—seeing as how many of us old-timers may either be dead from COVID or stricken with Long COVID—what will future-folk think about all the progress that
could should have been made, but wasn’t because a few cry-babies didn’t want to wear masks?
I pondered these and other questions during 42nd St. Moon’s opening night for Anything Goes (through March 12 at the Gateway Theatre, SF). Cole Porter’s 1934 musical is, on its own, nothing special. It’s a typical door-slamming farce where the most convoluted of rom-com scenarios take place to delay the inevitable coupling of the story’s two leads. It’s not Shakespeare (though it owes to the template set by both him and Terence before him), but it doesn’t need to be. Rom-coms may be the quintessential escapist form of drama.
Yet the musical premiered at an interesting time in US history. Thanks to FDR’s New Deal, the country was making genuine strides in recovering from The Great Depression—during which Porter’s musical would become the highest-grossing play of the era. It offered an uncomplicated peek into the lives of the affluent, even as many were starving and unsure of where their next meal was coming from. It was the sort of “c’mon, get happy” fluff piece that would never entertain a thought like a Second World War breaking out just a few years later.
That may have been willful ignorance or just plain obliviousness. In any case, the continued success of Anything Goes is a testament to, if nothing else, Porter’s talent as a song-maker. After all, this is the show that spawned such lasting standards as its title track and “I Get a Kick Out of You”.
The story, such as it is, follows a London-bound pleasure cruise aboard the SS American. Its guests include singer Reno Sweeney (Ashley Cowl), who has an unrequited crush on Wall Street upstart Billy Crocker (Matt Skinner). Of course, Billy’s heart belongs to debutante Hope Harcourt (Jas Cook), who’s heading to London to marry stuffed-shirt Englishman Evelyn Oakley (Nick Nakashima) at the behest of Mother Harcourt (Juanita Harris).
To stop that from happening, Billy stows away on the ship that also carries his boss, Elijah Whitney (Gary Stanford, Jr.). And, just to round out the ensemble, we also have gangster-of-no-renown “Moonface” Martin (Heather Orth) and Martin’s gal Friday, Erma (Jillian A. Smith).
Many shenanigans occur.
With a story that rote, you’ve probably already guessed how things will turn out. But one doesn’t stage Anything Goes for political significance or cultural commentary; It’s an excuse to cover celebrated musical standards with an eager and capable cast. To Moon’s credit, they have such an ensemble.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen a show with Heather Orth—whose vocals have shaken the walls at SF Playhouse, Ray of Light, and Berkeley Playhouse, to name but a few—but the virtuoso actor and vocalist brings her usual A-game to the proceedings as a gender-swapped Moonface Martin. Given Martin’s status at the end, one wonders if Orth’s casting is a nod to Porter’s own closeted homosexuality? (Incidentally, I last saw her in Sister Act: The Musical, so it’s crazy to once again see her belting in a nun’s habit after so long.) It’s entertaining to watch her with Smith-as-Erma, the latter played bubbly enough to work in a classic context, but with a self-aware performer who seems to understand the genre’s limits.
Cook and Skinner are a likeable enough couple on which to hang the majority of the love story, and veterans Harris and Stanford prove themselves adept at demonstrating that the young folks aren’t the only clowns in this circus. Yet, the show lives or dies by Cowl’s take on Reno. Her performance is fine, if a bit too “pastiche” (sometimes less like she’s channeling the era and more like she’s channeling Jennifer Jason Leigh’s version of it in The Hudsucker Proxy), but she bring an assured confidence to Reno’s songs. Since the cast wasn’t mic’d, her voice was occasionally drowned out by the backstage orchestra, but Cowl approaches the songs with gusto, especially the tap-heavy title number that closes the first act.
Despite what people in the future may or may not think, I certainly welcome Moon’s decision to still make masks mandatory, if not vaccines. The Gateway is on the ground floor of a decades-old building in the Embarcadero, meaning ventilation was bound to be limited. My Aranet4’s CO² readings peaked at 2582ppm over the course of the two-hour show, but I was happy to see an industrial-sized air purifier brought into the theatre and placed by the audience-right entrance. Despite the mask requirement, enforcement was non-existent in the theatre proper. Most kept them on, save for a few sips from wine glasses, but one or two seniors refused to wear their masks at all, a disturbing trend I’ve noticed amongst those most vulnerable to COVID.
Moon’s production of Anything Goes doesn’t really add anything more than a wonderfully diverse cast that would have been unthinkable back in the ‘30s. That may be enough. It’s hard to say what contemporary art and pop culture will have such regard among future generations, but if they approach it with the same enthusiasm as Moon’s cast for this show, then those audiences will surely have a good time.
We just need to live that long.
ANYTHING GOES runs through March 12 at the Gateway Theatre, SF. Tickets and further info here.