Grange Park Opera, 4th July 2002
Review by Emma Shane
© 5 July 2002
When it comes to musical theatre although I am not usually a purest in how I want to hear shows performed, when it comes to roles written for the mighty Ethel Merman, or musicals by Cole Porter, I can be rather fussy, liking to hear them performed just so, that does not mean to say I am necessarily against performers putting their on twists onto such shows (goodness knows Louise Gold does that often enough), but there are very few who would put a twist on that I would actually like. The result is, I doubted whether I would ever be able to bring myself to watch a production of Anything Goes. When it comes to roles written for Ethel Merman in general, and in particular the quintet of shows Cole Porter wrote for her, to my mind there are just two performers currently working on the British theatre scene, who are perfect for the job, namely Louise Gold and Kim Criswell. Both ladies have made excellent studio cast album recordings of the show. Although, sadly John Yap at JAY/TER has never yet put Ms Gold’s recording (which, conducted by the wonderful John Owen-Edwards, is the more exciting of the two) out on general release, this is a great shame, as it deprives the theatre-going public of hearing a real gem. I adore both recordings so much I always felt that, even though there is nothing quite like a live performance, no stage production of this musical would be sufficiently good to live up to those two wonderful recordings, especially not with regards to the all important role of Reno Sweeney. I had been lucky enough in successive years (1994 to 1996) to see Louise Gold play the Merman role in three other shows in the quintet, Red Hot & Blue, Something For The Boys, and, Panama Hattie. Then last year the glorious Gold starred in big slap-up concert-staging of Du Barry Was A Lady (which was broadcast on BBC Radio 3), and so managed to see a fourth member of the quintet. But Anything Goes, which is technically the first show in the quintet, remained the one I never thought I’d see. The show is done too often to be ‘lost’, and indeed the late 1980’s/early 1990’s saw major revivals in New York and London, the former starring Patti Lupone, and the latter starring Elaine Paige, later replaced by the one and only Louise Gold - a performance I had not been lucky enough to see. Fortunately this year’s production at Grange Park Opera in Hampshire stars the one other lady who I knew I could trust to perform the role the way I’d want to see it done, Kim Criswell. Naturally I had to see it. An opera production is expensive, and indeed I was rather put off by both the expense and the fact that Grange Park seems to be in the middle of nowhere, but decided to make an exception for the sake of actually getting to see a production of Anything Goes, starring a performer who I would trust to do the role of Reno Sweeney well, and fortunately Kim Criswell certainly came up trumps. In fact the rest of the production is also excellent, but it would not quite work without someone of Kim Criswell’s calibre in the Merman role.
Over the years Anything Goes has undergone a variety of rewrites. This production at Grange Park is almost certainly the fullest production ever done. Like the 1992 London revival of Annie Get Your Gun, which also starred Kim Criswell in the Merman role, in a show she had previously done a McGlinn studio cast recording of, this production clearly tries to go back to as much of the original script as possible, while at the same time incorporating as many of the later additions as is practical. There may be ways in which some of the elements could have been handled differently, but never-the-less it is an excellent effort at giving as full and faithful representation of the show as possible.
The show opens in a bar, there is a young couple already there, obviously intent on each other. The other occupant is Elisha J Witney, played by Simon Clark, a stockbroker, who went to Yale and as a result keeps singing bits of Bulldog, a Yale College football song. I think this is an interpolation into Anything Goes, however, as it was written by Cole Porter, it is a far more appropriate interpolation than some of the stuff that got put into the 1936 film. Billy Crocker, an employee of his, excellently played by Graham Bickley, enters, and Witney proceeds to instruct the young stockbroker about some shares he wants him to sell in the morning. When Billy protests those share are tipped to go through the roof, Witney says he knows that, but a fell Yale man told him to sell them. He exits, and Billy Crocker asks the bartender if there have been any messages for him, he is hoping for one from a girl called Hope. But the only message for him is from, well at that moment Reno Sweeney herself enters. This one of those thrilling moments in a musical when the audience can stop worrying about whether it will enjoy itself, as Kim Criswell walks on with a full Leading Lady’s command of the stage; it is very necessary to have that sort of command when leading a Merman musical (it is also necessary for a number of non-Merman musicals, but let’s not go into that here). It takes surprisingly little time for the plot to come to a point, Reno obviously fancies Billy, in fact she practically proposes to him, I Get A Kick Out Of You. The song is positioned so early in the show for a very good reason, to deter people from coming late. In the 1930’s there was a tradition amongst the toffs to go late to the theatre, so that when they went in most of the audience would notice their entrance, and what they were wearing. The custom was noted by Lorenz Hart in the lyric to The Lady Is A Tramp “I like the theatre, but never come late”. Cole Porter, quite rightly, felt this practice to be rather rude. Therefore he decided to teach his society friends a lesson, by putting one of the best numbers in the show on early, so that those who came late would miss it. It is said that his friends never forgave him. I Get A Kick Out Of You is indeed one of the best numbers in the show. It is also one of the various numbers that has become a standard being performed by numerous singers, sometimes with such peculiar arrangements that if one did not know the lyrics one would not recognise the song. The number has, not surprisingly, also been parodied, though it is almost too beautiful for parodies to usually work, one of it’s better variations was when Sesame Street did it as I get A Kick Out Of U, and that only really worked well because it was literally in Louise Gold’s very capable hands. In this production of Anything Goes, I Get A Kick Out Of You, resplendent with as close to it’s original orchestration as one can get, is sung beautifully with the utmost simplicity by the exquisite Kim Criswell. I do not think there can have been a sweeter more tender rendering of this lovely song. Reno is travelling to England, by ship, and tries to persuade Billy to come with her, but he declines.
The next scene opens with the chorus singing There’s No Cure Like Travel, a song cut to it’s bare bones in the original production, and renamed Bon Voyage. The chorus sing well, and it is a pleasure to have the song fully restored. We are on the gangway for the SS Leviathan. The ship is nominally based upon the Ille De France (a ship with actually got featured, with its own name, in the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - a show which I was once lucky enough to see an excellent production of, starring Louise Gold and Kim Criswell together!). The ship’s purser rushes up to the ship’s captain and says that they may not be able to sail, because their main celebrity passenger, Charlie Chaplin, has cancelled. It soon becomes apparent, that one of the running gags in this show is that cross-ocean ships are supposed to have celebrities onboard, and that is one of the reasons the hoi polloi actually undertake these sort of journeys. In this production the purser is played by a woman, Anthea Kempson, although I think the character is actually supposed to be a man. (which reminded me of the song A Little Skipper From Heaven Above, from Anything Goes’s successor show, Red Hot And Blue). Fortunately the ship is not entirely without some sort of celebrities, perhaps not any big ones, but the passenger list does include: Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (an English “Earl or something” - American’s were crazy about English titles then, and indeed probably still are, if the current Earl Of Portland’s experiences of doing a one-man-show about eccentric English nobles is anything to go by), Hope Hardcourt (The debutant), and, of course, the notorious lady evangelist-nightclub-singer Reno Sweeney, and her angels. Other passengers include a Reverend and his two Chinese converts Luke and Ben. One was a gambler and the other an alcoholic, as a reminder of their former sins they still carry with them a pack of cards and a bottle respectively. The two Chinese are played by Gordon Adams and Ewan Taylor respectively.. Coming aboard ship Reno and her angels make quite an impact on the audience, especially the angles (played by Lisa Donmall, Tiffany Graves, Carly Hainsbury, Helen Harper and Summer Strallen), including, Chastity, Charity, and, Virtue, the last of these in particular managed to draw some attention to herself (but then Summer Strallen is a Langford). Reno asks someone to lead her beside distilled waters, in other words “Where’s the bar?”. Next to board are Mrs Evangeline Hardcourt, Miss Hope Hardcourt and Hope’s fiancée, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, who is making a collection of expressions American’s use. Elisha J Witney has also come aboard, Mrs Hardcourt seems keen on him, and Billy comes to give him a message, suddenly he sees Hope, and this inspires him to stow away on the ship, just so he can be near her, but he has neither ticket nor passport. A little distraction is provided by the appearance of The Revered Dr Moon and his friend Erma. In fact Moon is really Moonface Martin the gangster, Public Enemy Number 13. Originally this character was to have been called Moon-face-Mooney, but there really was a gangster of that name, and it is highly advisable not to have characters in musicals with the names of real people, especially if they operate in the same spheres as their fictional counterparts (other examples include: Eric Dare the actor-playwright, and another character in Jubilee). Moon and Erma are on the run, they are waiting for their accomplice Snake-Eyes Johnson, who is Public Enemy Number 1. but he does not show up. Moon, well played by John Guerrasio. tries to stop Erma drawing attention to herself, but his violin case flips open revealing his “stratvarious” which is really a submachine gun). Moon then has an encounter with the real Reverend and they have a conversation about having been in China, either Indochina or Outdoor China. Then some detectives turn up and manage to arrest the real Reverend in mistake for Moon, Billy plays a part in that. The result is that Moon and Erma agree to let Billy use Snake-Eyes’s ticket and passport, in the name of Flowers. The ship sets sail, with the chorus singing Bon Voyage.
On the ship Reno recognises Billy, at first she is delighted, thinking he has come after her. But he soon explains about Hope, and how difficult he finds it to make conversation with her You’re The Top. I had always thought this was a song in which Reno and Billy complimented each other. But judging by the context given to it here, what is actually happening in Reno is helping Billy to figure out what he might say to Hope. This element of the number is emphasised by having Deborah Dutcher, the actress playing Hope, wander on and get incorporated into the dance routines of the number. They used much the same arrangement and lyrics as on the EMI Classics recording. But with one important difference. On that recording, probably because it was under the strict musical direction of John McGlinn the number, although very well, and accurately, performed, got just a little bit tedious. Tonight there was no such problem, for Kim Criswell and Graham Bickley did their best to liven the number up sufficiently so that it was not boring; But, being the wise performers that they are, and well aware of their own limits, they were careful not to go too far and overstretch themselves. It was helped by the fact that they sang the number pretty normally (with the notable exception of Kim doing her Jimmy Durante impression at the appropriate moment), and used their bodies for much of the livening up rather than their voices. This kind of technique is exactly where Kim Criswell scores a true hit. Kim after all is not much of an accent artiste (the way Jessica Martin and Louise Gold are), but what Kim can do, on a par with them (at least as well as Jessica and perhaps almost as well as Louise) is act out her songs. In fact acting out her songs is something Kim does as naturally as she sings them, and tonight this really helped her to make You’re The Top very much her own, no matter who else (ranging from Ethel Merman to Louise Gold) has sung it.
Inspired by Reno, having seen Evelyn going to bed, Billy does try to seduce Hope, Easy To Love. this is a song which was cut from the original Broadway production, because it was not in William Gaxton’s very limited vocal range. It is however well within Graham Bickley’s excellent vocal range, and it is really a very nice Cole Porter ballad, and it is good to hear it so well sung by Graham Bickley and Deborah Dutcher. The song was in fact restored to the show at least by the 1988 revival, it may even have been restored for the earlier television version (since that featured Frank Sinatra). Billy predicts that Hope will eventually marry him.
The next scene finds both Witney and Moon’s cabins on stage, in his cabin Witney is singing Bulldog. However Billy still has to hide from his boss and the purser. To achieve the first Moon steals Witney’s glasses, to achieve the second Erma, portrayed by Tanya Moodie, seduces four sailors (played by Richard Barrowclough, Jozef Koc, Andres Salazar and Kevin Sharp) and secures an item of clothing from each of them, to kit Billy out as a Sailor, There’ll Always Be A Lady Fair. This number was sung very well by the quartet, certainly it was comparable to the version on the McGlinn recording. Now disguised as a sailor, Billy tells Mrs Hardcourt the ship is sinking, but there is room in a lifeboat for her and Hope. Billy is now trying to distract Evenlyn, but Reno walks in and address him by name, right in front of Evelyn, then Mrs Hardcourt renters, and soon encounters The Captain who corrects her over the supposed sinking. I was rather surprised to find even the faintest suggestion of a sinking ship in the script, and wonder when this got put in. It is true that the original unused Bolton and Wodehouse script for the show, then called Hard To Get, involved a cruise liner that sank, however, the major purpose of the Lindsay and Crouse drastic reworking of the script (after the disastrous fire on the SS Morrow Castle) was to come up with a plot about a ship that didn’t sink.
Reno and Moon encounter each other, it turns out they are old friends, and decide to put their heads together to help Hope and Billy. They decide to try and get Lord Evenlyn into what looks like a compromising situation, and then blackmail him into breaking off his engagement to hope. So they hatch a plot whereby Reno, wearing something that slips off easily, will go into Evelyn’s cabin, and get into a suitable situation with him, whereupon Moon will burst in and catch them, and ask what Evelyn is doing molesting the lady. As Reno remarks “You know, you and I should’ve teamed up long ago”, Friendship. This is a song originally written for and performed by Ethel Merman and Bert Lahr in1939 in the third Merman/Porter musical, Du Barry Was A Lady. It was interpolated into Anything Goes when Bert Lahr played Moon in the 1950’s television version, with Miss Merman as Reno. The song also features in the 1988 revival. So here we had a prime example of how this production attempts to present the fullest version possible, including the best bits from that key 1988 revival. After hearing the song wonderfully performed, by Desmond Barrit and the stunning Louise Gold, in all its original Du Barry Was A Lady glory, last year (Lost Musicals production at Her Majesty’s Theatre in November 2001, broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in December 2001), it is sheer delight to hear it again, this time in Anything Goes, and inhabited by that other great Mermanesque interpreter of Cole Porter’s work, Kim Criswell. It has to be said that given Gold and Barrit’s ball with the song last year, Kim Criswell and Graham Bickley have a very hard act to follow. But they rise gamely to the challenge, and, as one would expect when La Criswell is singing Cole Porter, make the song very much their own. Somewhat to my surprise they sang refrain 6 with its seldom used original opening line (also sung by Gold and Barritt last year) “If they ever hang you pard, send a card”, rather than it’s often used replacement “If they every crack your spine trussele mine”. To my immense surprise, and delight, they also included Refrain 2 (the one that begins “If you ever loose your way come to May”), which is usually omitted when the song is sung anywhere outside of Du Barry Was A Lady - perhaps because that refrain does not make so much sense out of context, although given Porter’s fondness for French there is no reason why it could not be included, if, as appeared to happen here, one replaced “May” with “Mai” it works very well. All in all the song was sung with great enthusiasm, and makes a welcome addition to Anything Goes, especially with so excellent a Merman interpreter as Kim Criswell to sing it.
But back to the plot, when Reno goes into Evelyn’s cabin they get talking, and clearly find each other’s conversation interesting, Moon comes in too soon, and once Reno has sent him away, for a moment, she confesses to Evelyn what they were trying to do. It is clear to the audience that Reno and Evelyn are smitten with each other. It is also clear that Simon Green makes an excellent job of playing of playing Evelyn. He also sang the role of Evelyn on the EMI Classics recording (which also starred Kim Criswell as Reno), although it has to be said that his role on that was not as meaty as in tonight’s show.
Meanwhile, the female chorus is complaining about the ship’s distinct lack of celebrities, Where Are The Men. They performed this number very well, with a lot of enthusiasm. At the number’s conclusion they are rewarded by the appearance of sailors. Our stars, however, have more pressing difficulties on their minds. Billy needs a beard disguise; so Moon and Erma borrow Mrs Hardcourt’s dog, and shave its hair, to use as such. I was disappointed that Reno was not involved in this part, she was in the original script, and in the 1936 film. It is a great shame, because it meant that her memorable line about the beard “You certainly are putting on the dog” was cut, and I would’ve liked to have hear Reno deliver that line (still at least I got to hear it watching the 1936 film). Newly equipped with his beard, Billy pretends to Mrs Hardcourt, well portrayed by Linda Marlowe, that the man she knows as Lord Evelyn Oakleigh isn’t really Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, but his mad brother Algernon who has escaped from Bedlam, and is always marrying and murdering beautiful young girls, and that Moon is his keeper who has come to recapture him. Reno walks in on this and nearly puts her foot in it, but luckily Billy manages to drop her a hint just in time.
Reno encounters Hope, and decides a bit of plain speaking might help matters along. So she points out that Billy isn’t going to wait for her forever “Why the other week one of New York’s leading socialites practically proposed to him”, when asked who, she replies simply “Me”. At last Hope acknowledges that she does love Billy and they duet All Through The Night. This was very well sung. On record this song has been nicely but unremarkably sung by Gregg Edelman and Katrina Murphy, and extremely well done by Cris Groendal and Frederica Von Stade. This rendition by Graham Bickley and Deborah Dutcher is almost comparable to the latter.
Billy tries and tries to evade the purser. But eventually the purser apprehends him. The Purser is about the clap Billy in irons, but The Captain, played by Hamish Brown, says no, the passengers want celebrities, and Public Enemy Number One is a celebrity, so he shall be guest of the line, then Moon pipes “I’m a public enemy too”, which is assumed to mean “Number two” and he becomes a guest as well. There is a party atmosphere aboard ship, and it only needs Reno to enter to sum it all (both the plot, and how this bizarre plot came to be written) up, Anything Goes. This is one of those numbers that is such a wonderful showstopper of a song that when inhabited by as great a singer as it’s original interpreter, Ethel Merman, or subsequently by such wonderful Mermanesque singers as Louise Gold, or in this case, Kim Criswell, it is just as well it finishes the act, because showstoppers, especially Merman showstoppers, are so hard to follow. I have only once heard a recording of Ethel Merman herself singing the song, and that was on a film (so it may have been a little tamed down), but it is quite possible that our latter day Merman belters, Criswell and Gold, do it even better than Merman herself, for the simple reason that they do not seem to be afraid to sing even the most risqué of Cole Porter lyrics and make it quite clear they know exactly what they are singing. Kim Criswell is an incredibly sexy singer, her performance on her first solo album, The Lorelei was proof enough of that. Ethel Merman once wrote in an autobiography, referring to the song Doin’ What Comes Nat’rally, “I dare you to sell sex in a buckskin dress with two dead quail hanging round your waste”, if Kim Criswell’s performance of that song nearly ten years ago in Annie Get Your Gun is anything to go by, she almost certain rose to that dare, and now, with the title song in Anything Goes, she really comes into her own as one of our best singers of Cole Porter’s depraved songs. Criswell sings this song, as she does all such songs, in manner more in-your-face than Louise Gold who, somewhat surprisingly, is the subtler of the two when handling rather dirty song lyrics. In fact this song could represent one of the key differences between Criswell and Gold. With Kim Criswell a listener will know at once whether or not they like her interpretation of a song, whereas Louise Gold, in her own funny way, is altogether a more complicated performer, and it can take a while for the audience to make up their minds about her interpretations. In a situation such as this production, with its slightly opera-oriented audience (rather than musical aficionados) Criswell’s straightforward approach is probably a great help to the audience unaccustomed to really good musical theatre. However, perhaps the greatest asset that Kim Criswell brings to this song, and the element where she has truly scored over her main rival for this sort of role, is her crystal clear diction. All the lyrics can be heard clearly, and are pronounced clearly. There is no ambiguity in what the lyrics are, only, possibly, in there meaning. We get the song at once. It is a real joy to hear this delightful famous song sung by a lady who can do it as it is meant to be done. One of the things Cole Porter and Irving Berlin liked about Ethel Merman was the fact that she although she did not bother with having such a thing as a singing style, she really did concentrate on the lyrics. One of the fundamental ways in which the clever and talented Kim Criswell has truly made many of the songs written for Miss Merman her very own, is by the fact that in her performance of them, rather than making the mistake (so often made by many a singer of this material) of trying to do a direct imitation (Louise Gold is just about the only singer who manages to pull that one off), Criswell copies Ms Merman’s styless style. Like Merman she focuses on singing the lyrics clearly, projecting them, so that they can be understood. In this she is astonishingly successful, and there are many singers who would do well to take a leaf out her book, before they even consider attempting songs “Merman style”. This was a magnificent finale to a wonderful Act 1. As we walked into the hour and a half long interval we knew we were witnessing a very special performance of a very special show.
Act 2 opens in the ships lounge, with the assembled company, mostly in their night-attire singing Public Enemy Number One, a song which probably says more about human crazes for celebrities, no matter how notorious, than anything else.
It is time for Miss Sweeney’s service. Presently Reno and her angels arrive, they are dressed in long church-like gowns. It was a costume which barely suited any of them, especially Kim Criswell. Fortunately, Kim at least, very soon discarded the clock, to reveal a well cut bright red evening dress. Kim Criswell is one of those performers about whom costume designers do need to take a little care. Miss Sweeney’s service starts with her exhorting the congregation to confess. We start off with a rather uninspiring collection, the most interesting of which seems to be Lord Evelyn confessing that he once, out in China, he had an encounter in a Paddy-field with a young woman named Plumblossom. Although it is not explicitly stated, we are given to understand that this encounter is of a sexual nature. Continuing with the service we come to one more key number in this show, one more of those great Cole Porter songs, that demands to be sung by a really really great vibrato belter, who knows exactly what she is doing with it, Blow Gabriel Blow. This song was written for the mighty Ethel Merman, a lady with leather lungs and an ability (as Ira Gershwin put it) “to sustain a note for any human or indeed human length of time”. To my mind there are only two ladies who can do this number as well as she could, and fortunately we have one of them doing it tonight, Kim Criswell. It has to be said that Kim Criswell does this number astoundingly well, and wisely, as she always does with Merman songs, she does not try to be anyone other than herself. That said, her Tennessee twang does some disadvantages with a song such as this, because it means that her long high belt notes can get somewhat shrieked. It is a song which her rival probably does just that little bit better, through having a slightly richer stronger voice. For this Merman number, at least, Kim Criswell might be second best, but she is an extremely close second best. In other words, no current performer except for Louise Gold could do this number as well as, let alone better than Kim Criswell. She is most certainly more than satisfactory in it, and it is a joy to hear the song sung by someone who understands how to, and can, do it as well as she does it. It is difficult to give that number just a little bit more, without making too much of it. I often feel that one of the problems with certain Merman hits, I Got Rhythm is a particularly good example, is that they are all too often spoilt by being overdone as ensemble numbers, when really they belong to a stunning, powerful, solo singer, backed by the ensemble However, this production manages surprisingly well, with the simple idea of having Kim Criswell walk down the stage, and round the auditorium, while continuing to sing (it actually put me in mind a little bit of the last time I found myself witnessing a very powerful singer moving amongst the audience - Louise Gold’s ‘Muppet’ performance of The Girlfriend Of The Whirling Dervish in her cabaret act). Reno is followed by one other cast member, Moon, as Reno returns towards the stage, she says to Moon (who is now moving amongst the audience) that now might be a good time to pass the plate around, and he does so, while Kim finishes singing the song, still standing at audience level in front of the stage. This production in general, and Kim Criswell’s performance in particular are shining example of just how to do songs and indeed shows like this.
After the song, Billy is moved to rise, and confess that in trying to impress a girl he is in love with he only hurt her, we know he is talking about Hope, and she of course hears the confession. Billy then adds that he isn’t Snake-Eyes Johnsonn, he’s a stockbroker. At this the Captain orders him to be thrown in the brig, along with Moon (who after all is only Public Enemy Number 13, not Number two).
Hope is devastated, What A Joy To Be Young. It was lovely to hear this song restored to Anything Goes, it is not usually done. The only version of this song I had previously heard was Frederica Von Stade’s wonderful recording of it. Although I think overall I like Flicka’s version best, Deborah Dutcher did it really well, and if we can’t have Von Stade (who I seem to recall hearing announced her retirement last year) then Deborah Dutcher will most certainly do more than well enough.
Stuck in the Brig, Moon tries to cheer Billy up with an old Australian bush song, Be Like The Bluebird. This song seems to be the least like any other in this musical, and the one that serves the least purpose in being there. However it is a nice fun song to hear and one could not fault John Guerrasio’s performance of it. Erma peers in at a window, and delivers a few pieces of news, including that the new list of public enemies is out, and Moon has slipped down it. Now Hope sticks her head through a porthole, and she and Billy duet a welcome reprise of the sweet ballad All Through The Night.
Meanwhile our evangelist is puzzled “The Lord works in mysterious ways, but this time he’s got even me stumped” she remarks, it is obvious Reno is falling for Sir Evelyn, and he is clearly in love with her, he tells how about his family secret (his great great grandmother had a liaison with a Gypsy), The Gypsy In Me. Simon Green certainly put everything he could into this number. It came across really well. The song is not always included in Anything Goes, and certainly it’s positioning in the script has been altered a little over the years. Here it seems to have found its natural home, and sounded very good.
Back in the Brig, Billy and Moon are joined by Luke and Ben, for the present, they cleaned out third class shooting craps, but they will be released when the ship docks. Reno slips in for a visit, and with her assistance they hatch a plot, that starts off with the five of them playing strip poker. This was by no means the first time strip poker had been used as a plot device in a musical with a Cole Porter score, five years earlier the juvenile lead in Fifty Million Frenchmen (another Cole Porter musical that Kim Criswell has featured in a production and on a recording of) had also played strip poker (to get himself an evening suit).
We arrive at a moment that often occurred in this sort of musicals, the moment before the finale, where you need a simple song that can be sung in front of the drapes, while the set is being changed. In Merman musicals such numbers are often performed by the leading lady herself (examples include: The title song in Red Hot & Blue, and possibly Katie Went To Haiti in Du Barry Was A Lady). In this production however, as the finale is taking place on the quayside (a la the 1936 film, rather than the original production) a massive set change was not required, so the moment takes place on the full stage rather than in front of the drapes. And it was hear we got a surprise. The number originally used in this moment was Buddie Beware, sung by Ethel Merman. However some weeks into the run, it was replaced (at Ms Merman’s request) by a reprise of I Get A Kick Out Of You, for the benefit of latecomers, somewhat defeating Cole Porter’s objective in putting that song so early in the show. Buddie Beware was restored to Anything Goes for the 1988 revival, but it was given the Erma to sing, admittedly that character had not previously had a number of her own in the show. Given how much this production combined elements of the original with elements of the 1988 version I was really wondering who was going to do it this time. Kim Criswell walked on, and then a surprise, she started singing Kate The Great. It is almost certainly the first time this song has ever actually made it into a production of Anything Goes. The song was written for the original production, and was intended to fit into just this spot in the show. However, it was thrown out of the show, when Ethel Merman refused to sing it, because it was too dirty. She felt she could not sing it in front of her mother. Somehow I can’t imagine our two greatest latter-day interpreters of Merman’s songs, having such qualms about singing it (even in front of their mothers!) It is the kind of number that really suits Kim Criswell, of the hot sexy singing, extremely well. She certainly performs it with all the power and talent at her disposal, putting her own distinctive stamp on the number. A lot of the songs written for Ethel Merman tend to have a distinct Merman-style stamp on them, the song just cries out to be sung in that certain way that Ethel Merman did it, and is rarely fully effective when sung not like that. But does the same apply to songs that were written for Merman but which she never actually performed (at least not publicly)? The answer is almost certainly yes, although in such cases the stamp may go unnoticed, until the song is sung by a singer who can uncover it’s hidden origins and put their own Merman-style stamp on the song. And it is truly their own, because Merman herself never actually performed the song. Louise Gold achieved this effect with You Gotta Get A Gimmick (and almost certainly managed one gimmick with that, that I can’t imagine very many actresses attempting). Tonight it is the redoubtable Kim Criswell’s turn with Kate The Great. Kim’s job in this song is to fascinate, and she knows it. With a song like this how Kim is great, she just made the song, and made it her very own. It is fitting that she, of all people, should bring this little heard gem, back to life, in the musical for which it was intended.
Kim Criswell’s magnificent performance of Kate The Great is practically impossible to follow. What did follow it was, to my mind, the only real weak spot in the entire production, Buddie Beware, sung, as in all the recent revivals of Anything Goes (from 1988 onwards) by Erma. I suppose it is right and proper for Tanya Moodie to be given a number, but a number like that? I can say very little about her performance, it did not seem to work all that well. Part of the reason it doesn’t work lies in the fact that the number was written for Ethel Merman, and as with a lot of songs written for Merman, it shows. It is meant to be sung by a really mega-powerful brassy leading lady. Which means this number belongs to performers of a certain magnitude and talent. That means the song is really crying out to be performed by singing-actresses such as Kim Criswell (who, thankfully, has actually made a brilliant recording of the song, on the EMI Classics studio cast album of Anything Goes, showing us just how it ought to sound) and Louise Gold (who, regrettably does not seem to have done it, although she really should, because she has such a perfect voice for it, and could give us a really true idea of how it would have originally sounded). There are a very few non-Merman singers who might be capable of tackling this number, for example: Tara Hugo sang it passably on The Musicals Collection recording of Anything Goes, and I am sure Jessica Martin would be more than capable of doing it (just so long as she simply sang it as herself, and didn’t make the mistake of trying to an impossible imitation). But the number really belongs to Criswell (and if she ever actually gets to do it, Gold). However, Tanya Moodie ‘s difficulty with the number may also be due, at least in part, to the positioning of the number within the plot. Putting it right after Kim Criswell’s glorious showstopping performance of Kate The Great, gave it unfair competition. Personally I would not have had Kate The Great followed with another number, and certainly not a number sung by someone other than the leading lady. If Buddie Beware had to come so hot on the heels of Kate The Great, then, in this production, I think they only way it could really have worked would have been to give it to Kim Criswell to sing. One could have put the two numbers the opposite way round, in terms of balancing the performers that might have been better. In a way that would also have been a more accurate representation of what is essentially a Merman musical. Ethel Merman had a habit of stopping shows with her incredible singing abilities, therefore scriptwriters writing musicals involving Ethel Merman, in particular, were usually careful in their positioning of songs, so that her big numbers at least, did not come immediately before someone else’s big scene, or more importantly number. But really Buddie Beware was written for Ethel Merman, and it shows. Therefore, another possibility might have been to give that number to Kim, but have her sing it a little earlier, after Simon Green had sung The Gypsy In Me, perhaps she could’ve sung it as a kind of response. It may not be quite that number’s original placing in the show, but it is pretty close, and would have worked, after all, as William Gaxton famously said, “In this show anything goes”.
Moving swiftly on, we come to the finale. On the quayside Sir Evelyn is about the marry Hope, when they are interrupted by two men dressed in Chinease garb, we immediately recognise Billy and Moon in disguise. They explain about Sir Evelyn’s liaison with Plumblossom, which turned into Plumtart and produced Plumpudding. In other words, they are saying he has fathered a child, and now honour must be satisfied. Then they introduce the woman they claim is Plumblosson, whereupon Reno and the angels enter, also in Chinese garb. Hope immediately picks up on what is really going on, and after asking Billy “Are you related to Plumblosson”, declares that the only way honour will be satisfied is if she is married to one of Plumblossom’s relatives. Evelyn by this time has also realised what is really going on, and recognises Reno, so is very happy for both matches to go ahead. This leaves Evangeline alone and poor, whereupon Whitney comes to the rescue and offers to marry her. Then it is revealed that Billy did not sell his shares, so Witney is ruined, but at that moment a cable arrives announcing that the shares have gone through the roof, so he is now many times richer than he already was. Thus all ends happily.
It was a terrific production. Most of the performers were excellent, although I have not really singled out the chorus: Ewan Taylor, Summer Strallen, Lorna Stephens, Kevin Sharp, Andres Hernandez Salazar, David Menezes, Lee Mariner, Jozef Koc, Anthea Kempson, Chris Jarvis, Helen Harper, Carly Hainsby, Tiffany Graves, Joanna Gamble, Rebecca Gale, Naomi Fulton, Dean Ellis, Lisa Donmall, Michaela Davies, Trevor Conner, Rachel Chapman, Hamish Brown, Michael Boughton, Richard Barrowclough, Phil Aiden and Gordon Adams, they provided strong back up support to the leading performers. The orchestra played really well, and they had some wonderful orchestrations supplied by a man who has done a vast deal to raise the quality of current performances of American popular musicals, John McGlinn. Only on this occasion they were conducted by Nick Davies. I actually think this was an excellent idea, because Maestro McGlinn is such a stickler for accuracy sometimes when he is conducting it can start to sound a bit dull, especially Cole Porter list songs. To be sure McGlinn’s emphasis on accuracy has its place, especially with performers who are unaccustomed to performing this sort of stuff in anything approaching the appropriate original manner, and at the time when he started doing these sort of songs he brought a welcome breath of quality control to songs that just got slugged around, with little care for their original sound. However, things have moved on a bit since then. There are now far many more people who have a pretty good idea about how this stuff was intended to sound, and a bit of carefully considered enlivenment will not necessarily harm these songs, on the contrary is done thoughtfully such interpretations can put even more life back into these good old songs, as performers are able bring a bit of themselves to these songs for themselves while retaining the spirit of the original. In other words they can perform the songs as they themselves might have done them had they been around back in those days. But for such experimentation to work, you do need performers who can be trusted to do that without descending into ridicule. This magnificent cast, lead by Kim Criswell, really can do that. I knew Kim Criswell could, which was the main reason I wanted to see this production, fortunately (rather like when Louise Gold lead last autumn’s Lost Musicals production of Du Barry Was A Lady) the rest of the cast live up to the high standard she sets.
When casting a show that originally featured Ethel Merman it is vitally important to get the casting of her role right. Although it helps to have good people in the other roles, without Merman’s role being adequately cast the production would have an uphill struggle to succeed. In this show we have one of the two best choices possible. Only Louise Gold could possibly rival her. In this sort of role Criswell and Gold are comparable only to each other, and Merman of course. Kim Criswell does not seem to have quite as wide a range as Louise Gold, and I think of the two of them Gold’s voice is just that little bit more powerful. But Gold’s weak-point is her diction (especially if she is tired). Kim Criswell’s diction by contrast is nearly always crystal clear. Of the pair Gold is perhaps the more naturally like Ethel Merman, and indeed sometimes seems to have a tendency to slip into sounding like almost accidentally. Criswell does not exactly sound like Merman, although there are certain similarities. Her Reno Sweeney is (in her case) quite rightly most decidedly from Tennessee. But what she has managed to do extremely successfully is capture Merman’s styless style of singing. Wisely, when Kim Criswell does a Merman number she doesn’t seem to bother much with style, and she does not fool around with the song, she focuses in the same qualities that Merman herself focused on, the lyrics, being heard, and just being herself. Where many singers attempting Merman tend to fall flat is that they try to imitate Merman, rather than copy her style, and as a result tend to lose themselves in the process (Louise Gold succeeds, but only because her natural sound is so uncannily like Merman). If you want to get an idea of what it really might have been like to be sitting in an auditorium witnessing Ethel Merman on stage, then (in spite of her flair for changing accents every other line and her tendency to upstage all and sundry - both of which, much as I like them, are distinctly un-Merman-like habits) I think she has the edge in giving us a feel for the experience. But if you are looking for a role-model in how to sing songs written for Merman, than Kim Criswell wins hands down. Louise Gold’s startling methods work terrifically for her, the trouble is they only work for her. Kim Criswell’s technique might a jolly site more applicable. I am delighted and thrilled to have seen such a wonderful near complete production of Anything Goes as this one, and lead by one of only two performers who could really and truly do the role of Reno Sweeney justice. Plotwise in this show it is true Anything Goes, but for Reno Sweeney one must have a performer to give it a real kick, and in this production it has to be said, Kim Criswell is the top.
Webmaster's footnote: About a year and a half later, John Yap did release JAY/TER’s Studio Cast recording version of Anything Goes (starring Louise Gold), that was mentioned in the first paragraph of this review; for further details of that recording go to Anything Goes (Recording).