Lyricist Cole Porter was ahead of his time. Porter’s enduring title song for the musical “Anything Goes,” written in 1934, compares the erotic freedom and loose language of his own “modern” day with the narrow beliefs of the nation’s Puritan founders — but what would he say of today?
Maybe, like director Dori Bryan-Ployer, that there’s still a lot of high-spirited entertainment to be had from the light-hearted comedy and suave, satirical songs of “Anything Goes.” The oft-revived musical will be performed this weekend by the Orpheum Theatre, Foxborough’s community theater.
The trick for a theater company today is to persuade theater-goers “to suspend disbelief and put yourself in their place,” Bryan-Ployer said last week. “We have to recreate this stuff and make it work.”
“It’s physical comedy and needs a fast pace,” the director added. “I told my actors in rehearsal if anyone slows up on their lines, I’ll poke them with a stick.”
The high-energy approach is needed to allow audiences to appreciate the songs’ wit, have fun with the old gags, and thrill to the new choreography Bryan-Ployer has provided to keep the show fresh.
“I’m an aggressive choreographer,” she said.
Set on a shipboard cruise, the play centers on a mismatched couple-to-be who need to find better matches, some winsome young people who need to find each other, and a stowaway gangster (“public enemy number 13”) to add to the silliness.
Bryan-Ployer sums up the plot as “a bunch of wacky characters on a cruise ship, with all sorts of love connections and all sorts of mishaps.”
In reviewing last year’s Broadway revival of the play, New York Times critic Ben Brantley sounded a similar note. “Be willing to suspend your need for logic and your intolerance for groaning jokes,” he wrote. “There’s a reason this musical is called ‘Anything Goes.’ It’s a farrago of zinger-stocked dialogue, vaudeville-style antics, and musical numbers only pretending to co-exist as a coherent plot.”
Starring Sutton Foster and Joel Grey in major roles, the Broadway production won awards. Brantley joined the crowd in giving much of the credit to the “immortal standards” penned by Porter, including “You’re the Top,” “DeLovely,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.”
“Cole Porter really pushed the envelope,” Bryan-Ployer said. “He was a risk taker. His lyrics are risqué. We’re so desensitized today, so exposed,” she said, that it’s hard to appreciate how ground-breaking his songs were.
It’s hard to find lyrics that turn so many phrases while having fun with fashion and foible as Porter’s penning of the title tune: “In olden days, a glimpse of stocking/ Was looked on as something shocking./ But now, God knows,/ Anything goes./ Good authors too who once knew better words/ Now only use four-letter words/ Writing prose./ Anything goes.”
Those lines lived in audiences’ minds “back then,” the show’s director pointed out. “Remember, the musical shows went up every season and their new songs became the pop hits of the day. Everybody was singing them. . . . As a kid growing up, my mother used to sing ‘I love you a bushel and a peck.’ I didn’t know that was from ‘Guys and Dolls.’”
A gay man at a time when “anything” definitely did not go for gays, Porter pushed boundaries with a song written for a 1928 musical, his classic light-hearted love song “Let’s Fall in Love.” With lyrics such as “Birds do it/ Bees do it/ Even educated fleas do it,” the song plays off one age-old euphemism in the vernacular, “the birds and the bees,” while inventing another: “do it.”
Orpheum Theatre executive director Bill Cunningham also points to Porter in describing “Anything Goes” as a good summer theater offering. “It’s because it’s Cole Porter, and the music. It’s a great summer show. It’s light comedy, and it’s fun, and the music is uplifting.”
The show’s hard-working, talented cast of 20 includes a few high school students among a group consisting mainly of college students and working adults, Bryan-Ployer said. Of Marissa Silva, who plays Reno Sweeney (the Foster role on Broadway), she says: “She has all the chops. She’s just got it.” Silva is a theater student at Rhode Island College.
Steve Dooner of Weymouth plays the role of Sir Evelyn Oakleigh, the wealthy Englishman who’s been roped into an engagement with a younger woman. Happily — because comedies are supposed to bring the right people together — he finds a better match in Reno.
An English teacher at Quincy College, Dooner has directed Shakespeare productions for the theater. “He’s terrific,” Bryan-Ployer said.
Everything comes together in the end, Cunningham said. “If you come in with a light heart and want to laugh, you’ll leave singing one of the tunes.”
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508-543-2787Robert Knox can be reached at email@example.com.