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Theater review: 'Anything Goes' is a crowd-pleasing musical extravaganza

You might not know the story line of “Anything Goes,” but I bet you know the songs. Besides the title tune, the famous Broadway musical offers Cole Porter classics like “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “Easy to Love,” “Friendship” and “It’s De-lovely.” And that is just in Act I on this crowd-pleasing musical extravaganza, which opened Thursday night at the Duluth Playhouse.

The story line has this girl who loves this guy who loves this other girl who is marrying this other guy aboard the S.S. American luxury ocean liner en route from New York to England. Toss into the mix a mobster, a moll, real toy dogs and Amalgamated Prestolium. Then add a bunch of disguises, steal a pair of eyeglasses, and remember the title of the show.

Director and choreographer Michael Matthew Ferrell makes his mark on this production in a trio of significant ways. First, he resurrects some things from the original 1934 version to work into this production, which is based on the 2011 revival of the 1987 rewrite that not only updated the original book, but appropriated several songs from other Porter shows to turn the score for “Anything Goes” into something approaching a greatest hits collection. Consequently, we are being treated to a unique version of this show.

Second, this is the fastest-paced show to have graced the Playhouse stage in many a season. Early on there is a scene where Jody Kujawa and Jake Caceres cram as many jokes as they can into 30 seconds. The cast constantly is racing off stage after delivering songs and jokes before the audience’s applause has reached its apex. Because of the sheer number of gags and the speed with which they are delivered, the tommy gun you see on stage serves as the show’s master metaphor.

Finally, Ferrell likes his dancers to get some chuckles and outright guffaws as they are hoofing it on stage. In “You’re the Top” and “Friendship” he choreographs the dance to the lyrics as much as to the melody, which is a challenge when you are talking about Cole Porter (in a nice touch, we hear the man himself singing in the overture). Ferrell even gets Kujawa to jeté (twice). Then there is “Anything Goes,” the big tap dancing finale to the first act that whips the audience into an absolute frenzy. They had to have intermission at that point because that number totally stopped the show (during the curtain call the entire audience clapped in rhythm to the song’s reprise).

Finding another balcony to sing from, quick-change artist Kelly Grussendorf’s ritzy and sassy Reno Sweeney follows the grand Broadway tradition of dropping her character’s accent every time she bursts into song. The title song really brings out the brassy quality in her voice, and if you were wondering why Reno is “New York’s most notorious evangelist,” the answer comes in her first song after intermission, when Blake Peterson gets to blow his trumpet on stage in the show’s second-best production number.

Matias Valero’s charming Billy Crocker has a lot of crooning to do in songs like “Easy to Love” and “All Through the Night,” the higher parts of which force his voice away from the nice baritone that makes “It’s De-lovely” the night’s best vocal duet. Billy’s partner in that song, Kayla Marie Mudgett, displays a lovely vibrato in all of the songs she sings as heiress Hope Harcourt, especially the tender, “Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye.”

Kujawa plays mobster Moonface Martin, whose second-act solo “Be Like the Blue Bird” just has to be seen to be believed. On opening night Kujawa had the audience rolling in the aisles and got the biggest laugh of the night with a joke that everyone could totally see coming a nautical mile away. As Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, Keith Shelbourn has great fun with his character’s constant misunderstanding of colonial colloquialisms and Porter’s word play in his “Gypsy in Me” solo.

You have to wait almost the entire show for Amber Burns to get her solo number, “Buddy Beware,” as the saucy Irma. Burns delivers the goods, but putting that number before the finale’s reprise of “You’re the Top” seems a bit odd since that particular tune is neither pivotal to the plot nor a major production number. Then again, it would be nigh impossible to end the show as strongly as the first act ended.

As the ship’s captain Kirby Wood is on constant lookout for criminals and/or celebrities, Michele Sorvik provides several comic moments as Hope’s mother, and Jack Starr has fun bellowing and blustering as Elisha “Eli” Whitney (I waited all night for a cotton gin joke instead of all the Yale jokes, but it never arrived).

The eight-person band certainly sounds bigger than such a number would suggest, without adversely affecting the balance between the singing and the music. Curtis Phillips’ wood done up as riveted steel set design for the U.S.S. American has a definite anthropomorphic quality that is quite compelling, and on the practical side offers a dozen entrance points of which Farrell takes full advantage. There are a lot of costumes, but what stood out in addition to Reno’s glitzy gowns and Hope’s Gibson Girl wedding dress, were the four of everything done seven times over that Fred Rogers put together for the Angels.

Finally, a particularly telling and impressive detail that must be noted is that you can use all of the fingers on one hand to count the number of chorus members in this show who have played lead roles in Playhouse productions.

Go see “Anything Goes.” There’s nothing wrong here.


Lawrance Bernabo used to think “Sleuth” whenever he heard “Anything Goes,” but now he thinks Sutton Foster and “Bunheads.”


If you go

What: “Anything Goes,” music and lyrics by Cole Porter

Where: Duluth Playhouse, 506 W. Michigan St.

When: 7:30 tonight and Saturday, and April 3-5, 10-12; 2:00 Saturday, Sunday, andApril 5-6, 12-13.

Tickets: $25 for adults, $15 for youths/students.

For information: (218) 733-7555 or