Review: Anything Goes (Opera Australia / Gordon Frost Organisation)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), from Sep 5 – Oct 11, 2015
Music and Lyrics: Cole Porter
Book: Guy Bolton & P.G. Wodehouse, Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse, Timothy Crouse, John Weidman
Director: Dean Bryant
Cast: Gerry Connolly, Carmen Duncan, Bartholomew John, Wayne Scott Kermond, Debora Krizak, Claire Lyon, Todd McKenney, Caroline O’Connor, Alex Rathgeber
Images by Jeff Busby

Theatre review
Cole Porter’s songs are amongst the most familiar in the Western world, and Anything Goes boasts a whole raft of evergreen hits, all taking pride of place in the musical. Originally staged in 1934, the show has been revived many times, along with film versions in 1936 and 1956 and a television special in 1954. Porter’s music is unquestionably delightful and quite irresistible. The wit of his lyrics, and catchiness of his melodies were perfect for stage and screen during his active years from the 1920’s until his final TV score in 1958 for Aladdin. This latest rendering of Anything Goes is a nostalgic gem that brings back all that is wonderful of the era, and adapts it to contemporary tastes. Direction by Dean Bryant is snappy and bold, but the production is always mindful of the conservative American climate that it re-enacts and never allows itself to get vulgar, although moments of bawdy humour are plentiful and extremely well-received. Where there are forbidden fruits, the idea of “anything goes” can take hold anywhere, and Bryant’s less is more approach pays off. By being only slightly naughty, he makes us laugh from beginning to end, tapping into a sense of old-fashioned cheekiness that still works.

Anything Goes features an ensemble cast, with many small (and very lightweight) narratives held together by the conceit of a classic cruise liner setting. We do not usually expect definitive stars for this variety of show, but Caroline O’Connor’s presence clearly dominates. Her skill, energy and seasoned pizazz, together with supreme confidence and splendid comic timing, ensures that her talent is a cut above the rest and that her every appearance jolts the crowd into spasms of irrepressible excitement. Also fantastic are the young lovebirds, Claire Lyon and Alex Rathgeber, both with impeccable voices beautifully suited to the genre, and each with physical disciplines that let the depiction of their characters be believable, charming, and terribly romantic. Their rendition of De-Lovely is a show-stopper with demanding choreography by Andrew Hallsworth executed with tremendous flair and exquisite sentimentality, bringing to the show a sophistication that exceeds all expectations. Supporting players are effective comedians but less gratifying in their respective musical numbers, most of which appear in Act II, and causing an unfortunate dip in energy as the show attempts to reach its climatic conclusion.

Designers of the show must be lauded for a lavish production that looks outstanding in its refinement and elegance. Even though visual elements are probably derivative and significantly inspired by previous incarnations, costumes by Dale Ferguson are a treat to behold and a genuine highlight. Ferguson’s set, along with Matt Scott’s lights, are as dynamic and intelligent as they come. Every movement on stage occurs flawlessly, and our eyes shift effortlessly under the spell of their technical wizardry. Placement of the orchestra in the elevated centre stage is a genius touch that recalls big band formations of the past, and contributes to a wonderful acoustic dimension impressively balanced by Michael Waters on sound design.

The title might be Anything Goes, but nothing is left to chance. There is little logic in the stories and characters we see (and its occasional racial humour will undeniably offend some), but everything on the stage is measured to utmost precision. It is professional theatre at its strongest, and will provide benchmarks on many aspects of performing arts, in Australia and worldwide. Musicals are not the best at advancing a society’s politics and civilisation, and it rarely reveals rare truths of the human condition, but a work of this standard will inspire greatness in many forms. A night of sheer entertainment might not move mountains, but where we can find meaning, is the way it helps us see that mere mortals are the ones to make miracles happen.