Sarah Porter, Aaron Allen Make ANYTHING GOES A Pleasure Cruise

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Sarah Porter, Zachary Allen Farmer and Eileen Engel in New line Theatre's ANYTHING GOES, Mar 1-24, 2017. photo Credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg

New Line Theatre describes itself as “the bad boy of musical theatre.” Co-directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor certainly never shy away from edgy, sometimes uncomfortable material and have had great success with productions that were terrible flops on Broadway.  Why, then, would these two wild and crazy guys put Anything Goes in the middle of New Line’s 27th season? Isn’t that the polar opposite of a New Line production? Heck, people bring their kids to the free seats at the Muny in Forest Park to see the big splashy tour shows of Anything Goes. Is Scott Miller finally mellowing out after all these years doing shows like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Celebration, and Jerry Springer – The Opera?

In a word, no—the New Line Theatre motto is alive and well. Think of a veteran baseball pitcher renowned for a nasty curve. Time and time again the hitter comes to the plate knowing that he’s going to see that hook. This time, Scott surprises the hitter with a fastball down the middle.

Scott famously prefers to deconstruct shows down to their roots to understand the core truth of the playwright’s message. Over the years, after so many revivals by numerous directors, that truth can get lost. Roles get watered down to suit the public’s palette at any given time, music gets reworked, songs added, removed, put back in different orders—a classic case of too many cooks in the kitchen. In cleaning off the layers of revival patina to get to the original version of the show, Scott realized that Anything Goes is very much a New Line Show. It deals with the commercialization of religion and our penchant for turning criminals into celebrities. If you’ve seen a recent national tour of Anything Goes, you may have missed it as those shows tend to have needlessly large casts and gigantic set pieces, eschewing nuance for eye-popping opulent overkill. As usual, New Line gets it right.

It’s still a pretty big cast for a New Line show. Reno Sweeney—an evangelist turned nightclub singer, is played by Sarah Porter, who does sometimes sing in nightclubs herself. Sarah’s always a treat to watch, but you really shouldn’t take your eyes off of her in this show as she presents a lot of subtle subtext in her actions, especially when she’s not the focus of a particular moment in a scene. Note how Sarah’s Sweeney manipulates almost everyone on board the SS American in some way—sometimes with words, sometimes by action, sometimes by proxy as Reno’s Angels Purity (choreographer Michelle Sauer), Chastity (Larissa White), Charity (Alyssa Wolf) and Virtue (co-choreographer Sara Rae Womack) deploy their obvious charms. Sweeney is like a chess master, moving people like pawns, setting up an elaborate feint before toppling the King with a surprise checkmate.

Her biggest pawn is Billy Crocker (Evan Fornachon), a Wall Street broker who works for the gruff, volatile and absent-minded Elisha J. Whitney (Jeffrey M. Wright). He’s hopelessly in love with Hope Harcourt (Eileen Engel) whose pushy mother Evangeline (Kimmie Kidd-Booker) is eager to marry of to stuffy Englishman Sir Evelyn Oakleigh (the one and only Zachary Allen Farmer). He bumps into his old friend Reno who helps him stow away on board the ship but also leverages his pursuit of Hope to further her own ends, namely landing the wealthy Sir Evelyn herself. To that end, Billy partners up with Public Enemy No. 13, Moonfacy Martin (Aaron Allen) and his main squeeze Bonnie (Sarah Gene Dowling) who boarded the ship disguised as missionaries. Billy pretends to be Moonface’s associate, Snake Eyes Johnson, aka Public Enemy No. 1. Soon the ship’s crew (Dominic Dowdy-Windsor, Will Pendergast, Jason Blackburn and Clayton Humburg) are bending over backwards for Billy, whose antics are becoming too much for Hope to take.

Evan Fornachon seems to show more and more confidence in every show I see him in, and he seems very natural in a comedic role. He brings high energy and solid singing to the performance, and pairs well with Sarah Porter on “You’re the Top” as well as Eileen Engel on “All Through the Night “ and “It’s De-Lovely.” It’s always fun to watch Jeffrey M. Wright perform, and especially so when he can let loose a little as he does here. Zachary Allen Farmer managed to bust up Miss Porter in a moment that reminded me of the great Carol Burnett Show when Tim Conway would get his costars laughing uncontrollably. (NOTE: It was brought to my attention that this was in fact not an unintentional character break but a specific acting direction. I tip my cap to Miss Porter for being so good at her craft that she completely faked me out in that scene.) His characterization of Sir Evelyn is a study in comedic subtlety—the audience probably isn’t even supposed to like him but you can’t wait to hear his next wry muttering. If anyone is working on Mr. Belvedere the Musical, Zachary Allen Farmer is your man. Michelle Sauer, Sara Rae Womack, Larissa White, Alyssa Wolf, and Sarah Gene Dowling were particularly impressive in the dance numbers—tap dancing at a New Line show, can you believe it?—but the entire cast did a fine job with the choreography. The surprise of the night, however, was Aaron Allen. While no stranger to the New Line Theatre stage, I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him perform before, and his take on Moonface Martin stole the show. From his jittery, nervous movements to his loveable loser personality evident in his shaky speech that is always about to blow his cover, Mr. Allen hits Moonface Martin out of the park.

Rob Lippert’s scenic and lighting design evokes the right atmosphere while still giving the cast enough room to dance in the cozy confines of the Marcelle Theater’s black box. Nicolas Valdez leads the consistently sensational New Line Band on the piano, with the multi-talented Joel Hackbarth on the second keyboard, Adam Rugo on guitar and banjo, Jake Stergos on bass, Ron Foster on trumpet (a tricky instrument for a small space but he performed perfectly), and Public Enemy No. 2 Clancy “The Hammer” Newell on percussion. I want to give a special mention to Colene Fornachon, who designed the costumes for this production. They are spot-on and everyone looks fantastic!

Based on the 1962 revival from the Guy Bolton, P. G. Wodehouse, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse book and Cole Porter’s classic music and lyrics, this is Anything Goes as it’s meant to be performed and witnessed. Sarah Porter’s unspoken subtlety, Evan Fornachon’s easy effort and Aaron Allen’s scene-stealing high jinks coupled with some of the best dancing I’ve seen in a New Line production – Alyssa Wolf in particular was as graceful as an angel—combine to make this version of good old Anything Goes a new classic. Just be sure you keep an eye on Reno Sweeney, because its Sarah’s acting more than anything else that truly makes this production feel like a New Line show. Check out for more about this production, which runs from March 1 – 24, 2017 at the Marcelle Theater in the Grand Center Arts District.

5.0 / 5.0