Anything Goes, Grange Park Opera, Hampshire

Lost at sea?

Edward Seckerson
Tuesday 02 July 2002 00:00 BST

If Grange Park Opera (now in its fifth season, and with a friendly new auditorium taking shape) is already thinking of a follow-up to its current revival of Cole Porter's 1934 classic Anything Goes, then they might consider Porter's Out of this World (after Plautus, a long way after Plautus), a show thoroughly in keeping with the Grange's Greek revivalist architecture. Or they might simply say Doric-schmoric, these musicals are too much like hard work.

They sure are. They need careful and expert handling – a producer with a good nose for comedy, an inventive choreographer, and no passengers in the cast. There are a good few of those in David Pountney's production – partly on account of it taking place on board a transatlantic cruise-ship (jolly Art Deco poster-style set from Johann Engels), but also partly because, frankly, not everybody is up to the crossing. Pountney himself never really comes to grips with the madcap improbabilities of the plot, if you'll forgive my careless use of the p-word.

There has to be method in the madness; not madness in the method. It's all to do with precision – physical and verbal – knowing exactly when the jokes will land, not if the jokes will land. Too many went overboard during Act I, and that would be fine (they come thick and fast) if we weren't waiting for the splash. They say the oldest and cheesiest gags are the best, but you need to remember that they're still the oldest and the cheesiest.

The first good news (depending on how purist you are about such things) is that in taking on board later revisions of the show, we get bonus songs. "Friendship" (from Porter's DuBarry was a Lady) and "Easy to Love" were both added for the 1987 Lincoln Center revival, but much more significant is the reinstatement of "Kate the Great", a terrific number chronicling the sexual proclivities of (strangely enough) Catherine the Great, which was dropped from the original production because the star, Ethel Merman, refused to sing what became known as "the lesbian lyric": "She made the butler, she made the groom, she made the maid who made the room".

Happily, Kim Criswell has inherited Merman's punch but not her prudishness. Her Reno Sweeney – cabaret-singer-turned evangelist (don't you just love musicals) – is best summed-up in the following exchange: "I'm in love," says Billy Crocker (Graham Bickley). "I'm in cabin 13", she replies. She puts the revivalist back into the revival. "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" takes on new connotations when she sings it. Nor is cruising necessarily a waterborne pursuit. This red-haired Reno has plenty up top – and I'm not talking intellect. The neckline of her red velvet chapel-dress plunges as surely as her belt-voice soars. She lights up the stage whenever she's on it. So, too, does Simon Green's toothily effete English aristocrat Lord Evelyn. His confusion over American English (lots of possibilities there) is as nothing compared with his belated discovery of "The Gypsy in Me". Green and Criswell rightly stop the show with that number.

And here's another good thing: we hear the show just as audiences would have done in 1934 – acoustically. No miking. Natural voices and the original orchestrations slickly played by Nick Davies' beautifully balanced pit-band.

If only the production values had been as high. Choreographer Craig Revel-Horwood does precious little with five feisty dancing girls and a bevy of boys, and Pountney's penchant for messy formation routines wouldn't get within conga-ing distance of a cruise-ship, leave alone a Broadway stage. You see, not quite anything goes.

To 12 July (020-7320 5408)

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