- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 9, 2006

What better time than spring for the spritely wit and wayward sophistication of Cole Porter and his seaworthy musical “Anything Goes”? The songs from the 1934 toe-tapper are as chic and sunny as ever, although Olney Theatre Center’s uneven production threatens to swamp Mr. Porter and company from time to time.

For escapist froth, you can’t do better than “Anything Goes,” which is set on an ocean liner bound for London. Among the passengers on the SS America are Hope Harcourt (Laura Schutter), a pretty socialite who is in love with Wall Street bounder Billy Crocker (Kevin Bernard) but betrothed to an uptight Englishman, Sir Evelyn Oakleigh (Karl Kippola). Billy sneaks on board hoping to prevent the marriage and gets unexpected support from his new chums, a gangster on the lam named Moonface Martin (Ray Ficca) and his moll, Bonnie (Erin Driscoll).

Billy’s biggest booster on deck is the incomparable Reno Sweeney (Karlah Hamilton), a nightclub owner and woman of certain age who still has sizzle.

Reno Sweeney has been immortalized before by the likes of Ethel Merman and Patti Lupone, and needless to say, the part requires killer pipes and a certain brassy sass. Miss Hamilton may not have the rafters-shaking Broadway belt of Miss Merman or Miss Lupone, but her smoky voice sounds drenched in sin and suggests an enviably wicked past.

Initially, Reno has the hots for Billy, but she soon shifts her intentions to Sir Evelyn, a combination of fire and ice that plays itself out in the songs “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “Let’s Misbehave.” Olney’s production, under the direction of Brad Watkins, uses the 1962 version, which includes the aforementioned “Let’s Misbehave,” as well as “De-Lovely” and the catchy, Charleston-like dance number “Heaven Hop,” executed with an abundance of moxie by the kewpie-doll-faced Miss Driscoll.

The novelty numbers work best, especially “Friendship,” an ode to fidelity that features hilariously rubber-limbed dance moves by Mr. Ficca, whose character, the mobster Moonface Martin (“Public Enemy No. 13,” he boasts), spends most of the musical disguised as a machine-gun-toting man of the cloth. Mr. Ficca’s nimble and nutty turn as Moonface is one of the chief attributes of this production of “Anything Goes.”

One wishes the major players were equally as charismatic. Mr. Bernard makes a peppy but bland Billy; his vocals are weak on the romantic ditty “All Through the Night,” and he can’t keep up with the linguistic challenges of “You’re the Top.” Miss Schutter possesses a sweet, high voice, but her depiction of Hope comes off as nothing more than a plot device. As Reno Sweeney, Miss Hamilton is a powerhouse (she even heroically endures a disconcerting version of “I Get a Kick Out of You” set to a cheesy rhumba beat), but she practically steamrollers over Mr. Kippola’s more delicate portrayal of Sir Evelyn.

The production values are rinky-dink rather than possessing the ritziness you associate with the art deco period. James Wolk’s set looks flat and unimaginative rather than streamlined, and the costumes by Howard Vincent Kurtz have the highs and lows of something assembled piecemeal from many different sources. Ilona Kessell’s peppy choreography was not at its crispest because the chorus was frequently sloppy and slipped up on the tap-dancing combinations.

The opening-night performance also was beset by sound problems, with body mikes constantly shorting out and, because nobody knows voice projection anymore, the orchestra drowning out the natural vocals.

The book by Guy Bolton, P.G. Wodehouse, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse contains more than a few groaners, not to mention the inclusion of two Chinese coolie characters who are such jaw-dropping stereotypes you wonder why we are subjected to this sort of nonsense in 2006.

Although “Anything Goes” is a splendid showcase of Cole Porter tunes, you might be better off renewing your admiration for the composer by renting a couple of Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies and calling it a day.

**1/2

WHAT: “Anything Goes,” music and lyrics by Cole Porter, book by Guy Bolton, P.G. Wodehouse, Howard Lindsay, Russel Crouse

WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays (2 p.m. matinees April 13 and 27). Through April 30.

TICKETS: $34 to $44

PHONE: 301/924-3400

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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