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.
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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