A Depression-era musical that holds up beautifully today: See Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” in Lakeland.

Everyone knows .... that "Anything Goes" at the Lakeland Community Theatre. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

LAKELAND – The year was 1934. The nation was caught up in the midst of a Great Depression. What people needed more than anything was a happy diversion, a way to get their economic troubles off their mind and just escape from it all and just enjoy themselves.
Cole Porter, the legendary songwriter, fully understood that, and decided to deliver. What he produced was a Broadway show called “Anything Goes,” giving audiences a crazy comedy set aboard an ocean liner, where high society types frequently stumble, and Mr. Porter delivers with still-classic tunes like “I Get A Kick Out of You,” “You’re The Top” and “It’s De-Lovely.” If those Depression-era audiences didn’t experience a first-rate sense of escapism from this one, chances are they died moments after taking their seat.
Musicals that are this old don’t always hold up; the style of humor has changed over the years, and admittedly, there are times when some of the show’s one-liners and skits can seem quite old-fashioned by today’s standards. But it’s more impressive to see how much of this show holds up today, and if you happen to have a cast that expertly understands comedic timing, you could have the makings of a real winner.
So think about this: here we are today in the midst of a prolonged economic downtown that’s been described as being the worst since the 1930s, and a jobless recovery, and so on. And along comes the folks at the Lakeland Community Theatre to revive “Anything Goes” and gamble that audiences today still want some fun escapism, some innocent but clever comedy, and some very catchy, toe-tapping ditties to sing along with. Toss in a cast the size of one of Florida’s congressional districts and some expert choreography, and maybe the audience truly does have something to look forward to, right?
“This musical is such a gem,” said Alan Reynolds, the artistic and managing director of the Lakeland Community Theatre, just moments before the lights went down at the start of the show. “It was written in 1934 and it still holds up today. It’s playing on Broadway as a revival as we speak, but you folks don’t have to spend $500 on airfare, hotel and cab fare. You can see it right here.”
Bravado, or an accurate assessment of what Lakeland Community Theatre has delivered here? If you’d heard the hearty applause from the audience at the close of the first act, when the huge cast performed the show-stopping title song, “Anything Goes,” you’d know the answer to that one.
“Anything Goes” concerns the madcap antics of the folks aboard an ocean liner bound from New York to London. It includes a stowaway, Billy Crocker, who is in love with heiress Hope Harcourt … although she’s engaged to the haughty Lord Evelyn Oakleigh. In a cute twist, Billy turns to nightclub singer Reno Sweeney and the nation’s public enemy #13, gangster “Moonface” Martin, to assist him in his quest to win over Hope.
Along the way, there’s plenty of zany twists and turns. Moonface disguises himself as a priest, and when he learns that Billy’s boss, Mr. Whitney, is on board, Moonface comes up with an ingenious way of preventing the boss from spotting his wayward employee: steal his glasses. That sets up some of the play’s funniest moments as Whitney stumbles around, nearly blind, seeking romance from the lovely young ladies on board … although it’s not always lovely young ladies he propositions.
There are some funny lines, including Moonface’s observation of Whitney’s operatic singing: “He sounds like meatloaf night at Levenworth,” or when Whitney tells the bartender that seven drinks is his limit, and then adds, “Make it a double.”
But one of the play’s most interesting plot twists probably has more relevance today than it did in 1934. The ocean liner’s captain is disheartened in the beginning, because movie legend Charlie Chaplin had to cancel his reservation – which means there are no celebrities on board to excite the passengers. The captain panics. When he learns there are a couple of gangsters on board, not only does he not alert authorities, he invites them to dine at his table. Finally, he says with glee, some celebrities.

The Lakeland Community Theatre is performing the musical "Anything Goes" at the Lake Mirror Center Theater in downtown Lakeland. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

In the years since O.J. Simpson, and now, much more recently, Casey Anthony tested the public’s patience for criminal defendants turned “celebrity,” it’s a flip of the coin whether the captain’s joke, put in this context, will make you laugh or cry. It’s too bad Cole Porter never quite knew what the Internet would do for the folks who gain their notoriety in the worst possible ways.
But if Porter couldn’t quite envision our current cult of criminal media celebrity, he did deliver when it comes to those great songs, and the Lakeland Community Theatre does its part, giving us a beautifully crafted luxury liner, complete with two levels, smoke stacks and even the moon shining off in the distance. And when the cast looks like they’re having as much fun as – if not a tiny bit more than – the audience, their mood is irresistable.
Particularly entertaining are Dean Brown as the befuddled booze hound and skirt chaser Elisha Whitney, Robert ‘Dutch’ Salaz as the scheming, wise-cracking Moonface, and Anita Kollinger as Evangeline Harcourt, the stuffy socialite and mother of Hope. On a side note, I couldn’t help but marvel as Kollinger carried in her arms the cutest little chiauaua puppy, which seemed remarkably well behaved as it sat in her arms during all the insanity happening on stage. The fact that the dog also ends up being a part of some hilarious sight gags between Moonface and Billy didn’t hurt the show one bit, either.
“Anything Goes” plays on Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. There is no Saturday show.
Tickets cost $20 for adults, $15 for students, and $10 for children 12 and under. The Lake Mirror Center Theater is at 121 S. Lake Ave. in downtown Lakeland. Call 863-603-7529 to log on to www.lakelandcommunitytheatre.com.

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From the movies to TV and now community theater, “It’s A Wonderful Life” is back for the holidays.

Theatre Winter Haven's holiday play this year will be a stage version of the classic 1946 movie "It's A Wonderful Life." (Photo by Michael Freeman).

WINTER HAVEN – The odd thing is, except for the opening and final scene, most of “It’s A Wonderful Life” doesn’t really have much to do with Christmas.
And yet for decades, the classic 1946 movie starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed has been a favorite around Christmas time, with repeat showing on television in the weeks leading up to the holiday.
“I think when you look at it, whoever wrote the original story was brilliant to do it that way,” said Norman Small. “It places a level there that wouldn’t be there if it was placed at Easter or the 16th of March. There’s something about the Christmas season that makes people love this movie.”
“It’s A Wonderful Life,” of course, is the story of George Bailey, who operates a small savings and loan bank in the town of Bedford Falls. George had much greater ambitions for his life, and as the movie opens, he’s deep in debt and, on Christmas Eve, wants to end his life by jumping off a bridge into the icy waters below.
It takes the angel Clarence to show George how much worse off the town would have been without him being there all those years. It’s the kind of tearjerker that leaves audiences crying at the end – crying for joy.
Small said he fully understands and appreciates the movie’s enduring appeal.
“It’s the story of Every Man, who gets a second chance — and every man wants to get a second chance,” Small said. “And if we get that second chance, we take it. That’s very gut level, that’s really from the heart.”
Not surprisingly, local television stations and some revival movie theaters are not alone in bringing “It’s A Wonderful Life” back to audiences every holiday season. Community theaters have also discovered that audiences enjoy seeing a live stage version of the story – which is where Small comes in. The executive director of Theatre Winter Haven, Small said “It’s A Wonderful Life” was chosen to be their holiday production next month. The show begins on Thursday, Dec. 1 and runs for 14 performances, through Dec. 18.
“It’s not uncommon for theaters to look for a Christmas-themed show around Christmas time,” Small said. “You want audiences to come see a show and you want to do a good production, and you want one that’s relevant to the time, so you choose things that work for you at that season.”
The first task, as it turns out, wasn’t selecting the play, but figuring out which play to settle on. After becoming a movie, the George Bailey story was later turned into a radio play and then a stage play – multiple times, as it turns out. There are so many different stage versions that Small said he read several scripts before recommending one to the show’s director, Mark Hartfield.
“I gave him three or four scripts and he made the choice of which one to put on stage here,” Small said. “We chose not to do the radio play because there were too many children involved.”
Why so many different versions? That can be blamed on the film’s legendary director, Frank Capra, who committed a classic error in this legal age we’re in.
“The reason why there were so many different versions of this is Frank Capra never applied for a copyright, and everyone grabbed it,” Small said. “It went out into the public domain, and there are several versions of it — even musical versions of the play, two of them. The version we chose is closer to the movie.”
“I read several versions, and it ended up being not all that difficult to pick one,” said the play’s director, Mark Hartfield. “A musical wasn’t really on the table. There’s a radio version, but I’m not very excited about that one.”
Although Theatre Winter Haven selected a version of the play with fewer children in it, the script still includes 27 different scenes – including the classic one at the Bedford Falls High School where George Bailey and his childhood sweetheart Mary fall into the gymnasium pool.
“Putting a swimming pool on stage – how do we do that?” Small laughed. “We just hope that the version we’re doing translates to audiences because the story is so cinematic.”
That can be a challenge for community theaters that perform “It’s A Wonderful Life,” Small acknowledged, because audiences who cherish the story naturally love seeing actors like Stewart, Reed, Lionel Barrymore and Henry Travers in it – something Theatre Winter Haven obviously can’t deliver.
“You try to meet and then exceed the audiences’ expectations, and you have to meet them first,” he said. “It is a challenge, but I think we’ve met it very well in this case.”
Theatre Winter Haven cast young actor Derek Wyatt in the role of George Bailey, and Small said he’s confident that Wyatt will be a wonderfully sympathetic Every Man in the lead role.
“A couple of years ago, we did ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ at Theatre Winter Haven, and we had the same discussion at that time,” Hartfield said. “The way I approach it is in a live performance, there’s always something a little extra that adds a little more pizzazz to the story.”
The story of “It’s A Wonderful Life” actually dates back to the 1930s. Author Philip Van Doren Stern had a dream that served as the inspiration for a short story he drafted called “The Greatest Gift.” When he couldn’t find a publisher for it, Stern printed 200 copies of the tale as a 21-page booklet – and sent it to friends as Christmas presents in December 1943.
RKO Pictures discovered the story, purchased the rights to it in April 1944, then sold it a year later to Capra, who adapted it as “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
The movie was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, although it lost to “The Best Years of Our Lives.” In the decades that followed, the movie became a staple on television around the holidays.

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Tsk, tsk, tsk …. what is Nana up to with those naughty knickers?

"Nana's Naughty Knickers" is a farce by Katherine DiSalvino. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

LAKE WALES – Are you ever too old to fall in love?
If you’ve ever seen a play like “On Golden Pond,” you know that the desire to love and be loved is eternal, and doesn’t end when you hit retirement age.
A better question might be …. are you ever too old to want to look, and feel, positively sexy?
Katherine DiSalvino’s comedic play “Nana’s Naughty Knickers” aims to answer that question, in a style that’s been happily employed in the past by sitcom writers, starting with “I Love Lucy” and going all the way up to the likes of “Three’s Company”: what happens if you really, truly need to hide something from the authorities but you’re just not that good at it?
Let the screwball comedy begin.
Beneath all the zany gags, though, is an interesting premise that holds some relevance in our current slow-paced economy: the need to find your economic niche. For Nana, that’s easy. The elderly New Yorker has discovered that friends her age don’t want to stop looking sexy and acting sexy just because they use a walker or employ lots of wrinkle cream. Some of them can remember how they once were, as Nana’s friend Vera says, “the cat’s meow.” Why should they give up that feeling of genuine sex appeal when there are elderly men who still find them beautiful and alluring?
That’s the funniest aspect of DiSalvino’s play, which is now being produced at the Lake Wales Little Theatre, Inc. – entrepreneurs may be missing a golden moment by failing to recognize the wealth of opportunity that exists in targeting the sexy senior market.
Nana gets it, which is why she loads her closets with slinky lingerie, the kind that would make your average Victoria’s Secret shopper blush. That’s certainly the reaction from Nana’s granddaughter, Brigitte – who, in another clever twist, is far more conservative than her grandmother. Brigitte can’t believe at first that Nana would be involved in selling sexy clothing – and she’s even more aghast when she learns that to make it really profitable, Nana has been avoiding pay taxes on her sales for years, keeping it all quiet and under the radar of the government and law enforcement.
Nana’s business gets even more problematic when Officer Tom, a handsome young rookie police officer, takes a liking to Brigitte and decides to start dropping by Nana’s apartment more often just to see her. Naturally, the ladies have their hands full making sure Tom doesn’t accidentally stumble across any of those frisky nightgowns and start asking nosy questions. But it doesn’t help when the landlord, suspicious of all the packages being delivered to his apartment complex, enlists Tom to start investigating what’s going on.
“Nana’s Naughty Knickers” has the feel of an “I Love Lucy” episode – you can see Nana and Vera as stand-ins for Lucy and Ethel once they reached their golden years, trying so hard to hide this and that from Ricky and Fred – except the episode comes with a far more adult-oriented subject matter than Lucy’s writers ever tackled in the 1950s. In classic farce tradition, our elderly heroines are forced to devote more and more time and energy to covering something up – and it all becomes fun figuring out how they’re going to put out the next fire, so to speak.

The Lake Wales Little Theatre is at 411 N. 3rd St. in downtown Lake Wales. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

One of the play’s funniest scenes occurs when Nana returns from a photo shoot, highly disappointed that her two elderly models had to take a pass because their assisted living facility served sauerkraut for dinner the night before, and they were incapacitated by a severe case of gas. So, in the grand tradition of insisting that the show must go on, Nana enlists Vera and, even better, Brigitte to model her knickers. Would it surprise anyone to learn that Vera is on cloud 9 doing so, while Brigitte – well, see for yourself.
Part of the pleasure of watching “Nana’s Naughty Knickers” is the happy reminder of something else: there is no age limit on the ability to perform well on stage. Both Jean Hughes as Nana and Janet Davis McCarthy as Vera have a ball playing seniors who throw themselves into the naughty nightgown industry with the kind of enthusiasm that some recent college grads could use. Whether it’s planning their latest catalog of sexy outfits or figuring out a way to lure Tom away from the closet with some milk and cookies, Hughes and McCarthy are a real joy to watch.
And yes, you can see how a lot of elderly gentlemen would find them to truly be the “cat’s meow” in those naughty knickers.
The production runs through Nov. 20, at the theater in downtown Lake Wales at 411 N. 3rd St. The play is performed at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sundays. Tickets cost $14 for adults and $10 for those 18 and younger. To learn more or to order tickets, log on to www.LTLT.org or call 863-679-8587.

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