Leicester Operatic Players bring Broadway glamour to Leicester.
All aboard the SS American! Cole Porter's Anything Goes is one of those musicals that, even if you haven't seen it, you feel like you know it. The title song invokes a feeling of timeless Americana, and has the benefit of being incredibly catchy.
This week (April 18-22, 2023), it's being brought to The Little Theatre by the members of Leicester Operatic Players (LOPs). Niche was invited to attend the dress rehearsal for an early preview. As is always the case under these circumstances, one has to account for the show not being entirely ready. As such, I've been forgiving of sound, lighting, and set cues that weren't quite ready (all of which will be in place by opening), and instead focused on the performances, choreography and music.
Anything Goes takes place at sea, aboard the luxury cruise liner the SS American, as it sails from New York to Plymouth. The ship is populated by a famous lounge singer, a lovable gangster (designated as public enemy #13), a bumbling-but-adorable British Lord, a debutante with cold-feet about her impending wedding, a gin-soaked businessman, and his stow-away, love sick underling. As the voyage progresses, our characters become entangled in each others lives.
Now, I love a musical (regular readers will probably have deduced this), but there is a real gap in my knowledge when it comes to dance. I couldn't tell you anything about technique or choreographic process. As such, this is a bit of a "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like" situation...
I like this. Very much. Anything Goes is an iconic dance musical, and big tap-dance routines can be a real challenge for amateur productions. Choreographer Ellie Newbrooks has done a phenomenal job here. The act one finale (featuring the titular song) is spectacular; the perfect uplifting number to lead into the interval, sending the audience off to buy their ice creams in good spirits. Newbrooks plays to the strengths of the cast, emphasising what they do well, and concealing any weaknesses. The result being that everyone appears confident and capable on stage - this is no mean feat. Newbrooks will be choreographing for another production at The Little later in the year, and those performers will be in safe hands.
Steve Elliott's direction allows room for all the key moments to breathe, and acts as a foil to the choreography. With so many people on stage, it would easily be possible to do too much, yet Elliott has created spectacle to stun, but not overwhelm. He's also given attention to the quieter moments, allowing emotion and heart to guide the performances, and creating characters that feel fully-formed.
Even if you've never seen Anything Goes before, you will likely be familiar with every other song. This creates a pressure for the Musical Director to deliver what's expected, but Gareth Wynne and his band do this with aplomb. I can't tell you why, but I always get excited when there's a double-bass in the orchestra - somehow feels more official!
A true ensemble piece, it's a tricky musical to identify the intended lead character - historically it's often boiled down to which role has the biggest star cast in it. Each character has their time in the spotlight, although a few are certainly more front and centre than others.
Lizzie Bywater-Florance plays Reno Sweeney, the star of a New York nightclub. Reno provides the show with a level head when all around her are losing theirs. Friends with everyone, but slightly above all their drama, she helps arrange solutions to many problems. Bywater-Florance handles the role with ease, including carrying many of the show's iconic big numbers (including the title song) and being the focal point of several dance sequences.
Martin Green plays our romantic hero, Billy Crocker. The character's age is typically cast younger than this in other productions, but Green's vocal and dance talents more than justify the change here. Green has great chemistry with Joshua J Knott's Moonface Martin and bounces off other cast members, Russell Webster and David Lovell, for some of the shows best comedic moments.
Speaking of Moonface Martin (public enemy #13), Joshua J Knott is in his element here. Light-footed in the dance numbers, cheeky in his delivery, and offering smooth vocals, Knott makes Moonface fun. His partner-in-crime dynamic with Alexandra Elliott's Erma Latour and comedic chemistry with David Lovell add big laughs to this show.
Alexandra Elliott also brings a sense of fun to the role of Erma Latour. There's a mischievous, playful energy to Erma, the woman "cursed with sex appeal", and Elliott gets to flex her vocal skills in "Buddie, Beware".
Lord Evelyn Oakleigh is not typically one of the "big roles" in this show, but apparently no-one's told Russell Webster. He steals every scene he's in. The fish-out-of-water, stuffy English peer has you rooting for him throughout, despite the dramatic irony of the audience knowing his fiancée is in love with another man. Webster's delivery is filled with wit and charm, topped with some fantastically absurd costume choices. You're delighted each time he comes back on stage.
Hope Harcourt is brought to life by Natasha Carr. She does a lovely job of making the debutante torn-between-two-lovers sympathetic rather than greedy or selfish. She also brings charm and elegance to numbers such as "It's De-Lovely" and "Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye". She's also an accomplished dancer, and is given ample showcase for her talents.
Amongst the rest of the cast, Emma Bamford's Captain Strong displays a mix of panic and over-confidence that's very amusing (and has my favourite funny moment of the show). Karen Hamilton's Evangeline Harcourt (Hope's mother) has a flawless American accent, perfectly suited to the period, and used brilliantly to exaggerate her over-doting mother. And a special mention must go to David Lovell, who was heavily-featured in another musical on the Little's stage just two days ago, and yet somehow has this not-insignificant role in his head too, seemingly without missing a beat.
The ensemble and supporting cast add a lot to this production, with the full company numbers often the most memorable, including "Bon Voyage", "Anything Goes", and "Public Enemy Number One". If Reno Sweeney is the brain of this musical, and Hope and Billy are the heart, then the dancers, especially Reno's Angels, are its lungs. They have breath-taking energy, maintaining the visual feast throughout.
Overall, this is a good production with flashes of brilliance. It's feel-good energy combines with Broadway elegance, to send you out of the auditorium in good spirits and ready for a cruise. Book your ticket for the SS American.