Some shows don’t revive well.
The Just So Society, having finally ceded to pressure to programme classic musicals, may have hit a bum note in choosing Anything Goes – an immensely talented cast, some gaffs, and some great musical numbers do little to cover the frankly bald excuse for a script and the racial attitudes central to parts of the plot (centering around converting Chinese men to Christianity).
In some sense, this isn’t a great musical anyway – its book has been in constant flux since its inception and effectively acts as a linking vessel for Cole Porter’s delightful music, which at times feels quite roughly shoehorned in. It’s a work that needs some heavy dramaturgy or incredibly clear direction to be coherent and to deliver the ‘escapism’ that director Marcella Denby mentions in her programme notes. That clarity of execution was, in this production, sadly lacking.
That being said, the performers were immensely talented – Caelan Mitchell-Bennett’s Evelyn was hilarious and consistent, Lydia Milne’s voice glowed, and cameos from Matthew Lansdell were sensational. Just So newcomers George Lea and and Veronique Lalley, as the scheming and ridiculous Moonface and Bonnie respectively, absolutely shone – their chemistry, sense of humour, and energy throughout were uplifting and something of a light in the darkness.
I could watch Lydia Seed’s Reno Sweeney sing the Cole Porter songbook for the rest of my life. Her performance was completely electric – they’re tough (tap) shoes to step into, and she did so with equal parts grace and moxie.
In the world of Anything Goes, There’s No Cure Like Travel because when you’re cruising in open waters, the normal laws don’t apply – superstars fraternise with public enemies and the landed gentry (in more ways than one) and chaos can follow. Interesting costumes and nostalgic musical themes do not make this piece less radical – in many ways, this show is a forerunner to Cabaret and Chicago in its sensuality, and without that kick, this production felt sadly lacking in backbone.
The lack of clarity and confused pacing left a sense of overacting at times, and the beaming smiles of certain cast members left the audience frankly uncomfortable when the action of scenes was unclear. Many jokes failed to land, and actors seemed unsure at times what some of their lines meant. I’m not sure that all of the themes and contexts of the play were fully explored in rehearsal – with Reno and her rather sanitised angels (save for a gloriously sultry and robust performance from Eleanor Burke as Chastity), even the title number, a sort of radical epicurean anthem, was left feeling a bit twee and wet.
Choreography from Sarah Julia Greenberg and Iona Galbraith was excellent, but couldn’t be enjoyed because of the cast’s uncertainty and low energy, as well as the music’s strangely slow tempo, not at all aided by technical sound mixing problems (especially in the brass). This is a show that was written for Broadway in its golden age, whose dance breaks are written for row upon row of Rockettes; not a handful of St Andrews undergrads.
Though there were some costume moments that weren’t entirely right for the period, Anna Tumblety’s attention to detail was commendable. Pulling together costumes for a cast of this size of any coherence on a student budget is no mean feat, and there were some really lovely costume moments, from a reveal for the angels to slick sailor costumes and simple and effective colour co-ordination in It’s De-Lovely.
With last semester’s Songs for A New World and now Anything Goes, one wonders when the Just So Society will learn that the Stage is a woeful venue for musical theatre – it sucks sound away to any corners of the room without any audience, it has limited capacity for set design, and its blackouts are blue-outs at best. Facing these restrictions, it’s little wonder that the world-building was lacking in this production, and similarly unsurprising that there were so many distracting little technical issues with sound. I hope this semester’s next musical, Bare, will find ways of overcoming this venue and prove me wrong.
Despite an immensely talented cast and creative team, the lack of clarity and of direction meant that the called-for glamorous Broadway escapism never really materialised, and the production was left a bit spineless.