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THEATER REVIEW : Champagne for Dessert: It's a Vintage Performance of 'Anything Goes'

July 23, 1992|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For those who think that the best way to battle the summer doldrums is a tall glass of champagne, the Whittier-La Mirada Musical Theatre Assn. has served up an effervescent version of the champagne of musicals, Cole Porter's "Anything Goes."

For those who think that heat with the bubbly may make them woozy, director Gary Krinke has kept things bright and bouncy yet soberly in place at La Mirada Theatre. The strategy is to assume that no one has heard Porter's score before, and put it across as if it were fresh off his work desk. It's a simple rule for any civic light opera or musical revival company, which is possibly why it's too often forgotten. Not this time.

You have to wonder if this company's new name has something to do with it. What once was the Whittier-La Mirada Light Opera Assn. has clearly decided to do musicals full time, but this production puts that message across with a lot more force than just a name change. Like other L.A.-area musical groups, Whittier-La Mirada is on its way to filling the vacuum left by the collapsed California Music Theatre in Pasadena.

Of course, "Anything Goes" is pure dessert--very silly, safe stuff, even with the cocaine reference in "I Get A Kick Out of You." But better such an elegantly sweet concoction than, for instance, the audience-pandering Shakespeare that seasonally sweeps into town like a bad Santa Ana condition. You chortle over the book's tipsy plot (by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse, then thoroughly revised for the hasty 1934 Broadway opening by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse). And you're whisked away by Porter's lyrical dance with words.

If you doubt it, just sample "You're the Top," which this version (there are several floating around) puts near the top of the show. Only Porter would even consider inserting Mahatma Gandhi into a tune, then get away with it.

None of this matters, though, if the tune doesn't come across, but Krinke's ensemble is firmly plugged in--again, as if this weren't a revival. This bit of make-believe begins with Alicia Irving (late of the well-regarded "Club Indigo Revisited" at Burbank's Golden Theatre) make-believing that Ethel Merman never performed brassy revivalist-turned-nightclub star Reno Sweeney. (It was written for Merman.)

Most of the showstoppers are Reno's, and even with a few ragged moments, Irving confidently knocks 'em out of the park. These aren't songs for a finesse player, but for a slugger like the younger Liza Minelli, who Irving frequently resembles.

On all sides of Irving, there's the same confidence. Keith Devaney is lanky and goofy as Billy, whose mix-ups with Nathan Holland's deep-Gotham gangster Moonface keep the story going on the show's cross-Atlantic ocean liner. Julie Seaborn's full-throated Hope is a nice straight-arrow counterpart to Irving's Sweeney, though she has great fun with Devaney--and the jail bars in the ship's brig--on "All Through the Night." Ronnie Sperling finally gets his British accent down in a John Cleese-like take on Sir Evelyn. And Jill Matson shows off some serious dance chops (thanks to choreographer Ray Limon) as Moonface's moll, Bonnie.

Matson and her mates match the set--a simple, Art Deco beauty, borrowed from Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera--wearing an unexpectedly rich batch of costumes by Jeanne Reith. The light-hearted elegance isn't always carried through in the pit, where musical director/conductor Todd Helm's orchestra sounds thinner than it should.

But nothing gets in the way of the champagne. The vintage is 1934--always a good year when it's done like this.

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