'Anything Goes' is a boatload of fun

OPRF puts on an old-fashioned Cole Porter musical

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By Doug Deuchler


If you need a lift and simultaneously would enjoy feeling great about our community, head on over to Oak Park and River Forest High School this weekend and witness the splashy old-fashioned musical Anything Goes. You'll find invigorating, escapist entertainment that was designed to uplift Depression-weary audiences, but its many charms also work for those trapped in a seemingly endless winter. 

There are 95 OPRF students onstage — a very diverse cast — in this fast-paced, large-scale production with 130-some kids involved in all. The pit orchestra — which has never sounded better, I might add — is made up of 31 students, with something like four trumpets and nine saxophones alone playing the unforgettable score.

The two-act 1934 screwball comedy musical, directed by Michelle Bayer, is chock full of many of Cole Porter's most infectious songs with still-clever lyrics. This show introduced such immortal standards as "You're The Top," "Blow Gabriel Blow," and "I Get A Kick Out Of You." Happily, there has been no attempt to modernize any of Porter's topical references in the songs (though one wonders if these kids have any idea what is meant by "Durante's nose," "Mae West's shoulders," or "Garbo's salary.") This version even uses the original line "I get no kick from cocaine," which was changed to "champagne" after the initial Broadway run.

The plot, which focuses on madcap antics aboard an ocean liner bound from New York to London, has always been kind of a mess. I believe something like six authors revised the book over the years. But it is delightful watching what these lively young performers do with all the absurd plot twists. The comedy is constant, though dated, so suspend your need for logic, increase your tolerance for corny jokes with groaner punchlines, and enjoy the talented cast. 

It's a tale of love, deception, mistaken identity and celebrity-worship, complete with an exuberant crew of tap-dancing sailors, an amazing ocean liner set, swellegant costumes, and a slew of timeless Cole Porter gems that are just as de-lovely to hear today as they were 80 years ago. 

Yohana Ansari-Thomas is dashing and debonair as Billy Crocker, a young stockbroker who stows away on board pretending to be a sailor (and later a gangster). He's pursuing a lovely debutante, Hope Harcourt, played by Irina Olsen, who he fell for on first sight. When they dance, these two convey the delightful chemistry of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. But Hope's new British fiance, a wealthy stuffed shirt named Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Joe Dennis), is on board as well.

Reno Sweeney, the role played on Broadway by a very young Ethel Merman in 1934, is a brassy nightclub singer-turned-evangelist, suddenly saving souls on the high seas. She is played by Nora Kraft. Reno also has a not-so-secret crush on Billy. Her rendition of "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," complete with featured trumpets and dancing showgirls a la Busby Berkeley, is really something to behold. Reno's "Angels" are Chisom Nwoko, Avery Barret, Margot Frank, and Rachel Pospisil.

Max Gonzalez has perfect comic timing as Moonface Martin, also known as Public Enemy #13. He's on the lam with his squeaky-voiced, tag-along floozy sidekick Erma, played by Kianna Beverly. These two are charming and hilarious in all of their scenes. 

The quartet of exuberant sailors are Alonte Williams, Noah Kitsos, Rory Schrobilgen, and Grant Reynolds.

Minister Henry T. Dobson (Mark Weissglass) has brought along a couple of Chinese missionaries (Ben Brotman and Gabe Shonman). Traditionally this pair has been played for comic relief in "yellowface" make-up with "coolie hats" with long pigtails. Fortunately, although much of the flavor of the 1930s is retained in this production, such politically-incorrect sight gags have been eliminated.

Mrs. Evangeline Harcourt, Hope's uptight, haughty mother, is played by Fiona Barrett. Billy's cranky Wall Street tycoon boss, Elisha Whitney, is John Stankovich.

There are scores of other students on stage, plus many more working behind the scenes on everything from tech and sound to costumes and props. Moira Larkin is Master Carpenter, Joseph Riem is Master Electrician, and Master of Sound is Nadirah Muhammand.

Greta Fleischer, a student videographer, is shooting a documentary about the production, "Standing By."

A number of staff members and other adults play integral roles in the success of this huge production. The very inventive choreography is by Amber Hooper, Elaine Hlavach is vocal director, Patrick Pearson is instrumental director, Joe Hallissey did the lighting, and Patricia Cheney designed the hair and make-up. Jacob Fisher is technical director and also designed the massive, detailed ship set, the S.S. American. Jeffrey Kelly created the sassy '30s costumes, of which there are over 200.

One of the added delights in seeing a giant production like this at the high school is discovering that kids on your block are so talented. I was thrilled to notice the girl across the street from me, Maggie Lynch, tapping her tail off as one of the featured showgirl dancers. 

I am delighted to report that it's now clearly OK for young men at the high school to appear in musical theater. I recall the not-so-distant past when some of the sailors might have been played by girls because there never were enough young men to go around. The guys in this production are exceptional performers. 

People often say about musicals, they sure don't make 'em like they used to. 

Well, this lively production of Anything Goes is a boat load of fun.

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