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Review: In ‘Anything Goes’ by Porchlight Music Theatre, star Meghan Murphy makes this Cole Porter musical sail along

January has been so cold and dead in Chicago theater, I’ve been dreaming of taking a cruise. Fortuitously, one docked downtown Friday night at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts with the kind of lead performer more suited to Broadway than the high seas.

That star would be Chicago’s own Meghan Murphy, a vocal powerhouse with a sardonic sense of humor and a whipsmart, present-tense presence. Eschewing any pretension in favor of a generous spirit, Murthy is a sure anchor for a show like Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.” (For the record, the current Broadway revival of “Spamalot” could have used her as Lady of the Lake, a role she made her own at the Mercury Theater, pre-pandemic). Murphy here is essaying the role of the voyaging nightclub singer Reno Sweeney, as originally penned for Ethel Merman. And whenever the ship’s doors in director Michael Weber’s production swing open and Murphy struts out, center deck ... well, you can feel the heat and hear the hiss of the snow melting on the sidewalk outside.

“Anything Goes” was first seen in 1934 and gave the Great American Songbook such venerable entries, along with the title song, as “You’re the Top,” “All Through the Night,” and “I Get a Kick Out of You.” That original book was by P.G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. But in 1987, the writers Timothy Crouse (son of Russel) and John Weidman penned a new libretto for a Lincoln Center production starring Patti LuPone, retaining the character types but changing the plot somewhat (not that it much matters) and reordering the musical numbers and who sings them. More significantly, they built on the practice of adding Porter songs written for other shows (such as “Friendship,” written for his 1939 musical “DuBarry Was a Lady”). In sum, pretty much any time anyone opens their mouth to sing in this show, the audience already knows the song from a thousand studio recordings.

Murphy is not the only fine singer here: Luke Nowakowski (who plays male lead Billy Crocker) and Emma Ogea (as the ingénue Hope Harcourt) also do full justice to the score and manage to hold their own with Murphy; Ogea, a new face who is still in college, makes a vocally rich Chicago stage debut.

The comedy felt rather less successful than when I’ve seen it work before; those scenes are hard work now, given that even the substantial 1987 revision now is showing its age. That said, it’s worth noting that this show was satirizing the power of celebrity and spoofing self-promotion long before it was fashionable to do so.

In this production, Act 1 is stronger than Act 2, when the show’s unraveling of its various romantic complications doesn’t always feel fully in sync. On opening night, at least, the finale felt rushed and abrupt. The production also needed more space and air around Tammy Mader’s choreography, which did not always pop as Mader’s work so often does. This is a big cast crammed onto a small stage and sometimes looking a tad nervous at the prospect.

None of that, though, will much spoil your enjoyment of a well-timed show that arrives ahead of the pack with a rush of vitality, honesty, vulnerability and a palpable love for old-school Broadway. Once the show finds its sea legs and these mostly young actors relax and start really having fun, the show’s waves will get more of the froth they need. Murphy can just grab her surfboard.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@chicagotribune.com

Review: “Anything Goes” (3 stars)

When: Through Feb. 25

Where: Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St.

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Tickets: $48-$72 at porchlightmusictheatre.org