Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre's 'Anything Goes' is a pleasure cruise

Performer's in AGST's production of "Anything Goes" include Wendell Holland (Captain), center; Alex Trujillo (Billy Crocker), below center with Katie Gardner (Hope Harcourt); and Jeff Sprague (Lord Evelyn Oakley), lower deck center with Nicole Anderson (Reno Sweeney).
Performer's in AGST's production of "Anything Goes" include Wendell Holland (Captain), center; Alex Trujillo (Billy Crocker), below center with Katie Gardner (Hope Harcourt); and Jeff Sprague (Lord Evelyn Oakley), lower deck center with Nicole Anderson (Reno Sweeney). (Photo for The Baltimore Sun by Bud Johnson)

Setting a new high with Cole Porter's "Anything Goes," director Jerry Vess marks his seventh Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre directorial assignment by adding sparkle to the opening of the outdoor theater's 47th season under the stars.

Not only has Vess gathered a stellar cast to lend extra zest to Porter's timeless classic, but as set designer he has also created a fabulous tri-level cruise ship SS America complete with realistic smokestacks and portholes.

A construction crew of four along with several artist-painters helped Vess. Onboard wall panels rotate to become staterooms where comic action amuses at a rapid pace in quick scene changes. Instantly drawing the outdoor audience members into the action are actors who arrive through the theater aisles to climb the central gangplank to board the ship as passengers on a magical evening cruise.

Contributing to the excellence of this 2012 season opener is music director Ruth Capobianco, whose work meets all requirements of this Broadway smash, aided by pianist/conductor Ken Kimble and his five skilled musicians.

Meghan Bierne creates sassy and elegant costumes evoking 1930s Hollywood glamour to enhance every dancer's moves. Seldom have we seen costumes better complement leading ladies.

Rarely does a star do as much for her costumes as Nicole Anderson, whose portrayal of night-club singer-evangelist Reno Sweeney earns her the "star" title. Witnessing this performance is doubly satisfying to those of us who have watched this home-grown talent develop from childhood roles at Chesapeake Music Hall. In a 2002 review, I described versatile, then-14-year-old Nicole as "a high-kicking dancer in 'A Chorus Line,' Dorothy in 'Wizard of Oz' who can't help stealing every scene she's in."

Anderson is a natural on all counts — a strong actor, a vocalist with ability that extends to spot-on interpretation of Porter's incomparable lyrics, and a dancer capable of dazzling tap who also possesses stunning ballroom grace. Show-stopping moments include her smart delivery of "You're the Top" with Billy Crocker (Midshipman 1st Class Alex Trujillo), an exuberant "Friendship" with Moonface Martin (her fiance, Nathan Bowen) and amazing tour-de-force tap dancing while singing "Anything Goes" to close Act 1. She follows in Act 2 with an equally dazzling "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" before delivering a heart-felt "Take Me Back to Manhattan." Reno Sweeney is a great role, and Anderson owns it this month at Summer Garden.

Another noteworthy home-grown talent is Hannah Thornhill, who learned her dance skills at Stageworkz and performed from an early age with Talent Machine Company. Thornhill's spectacular choreographing debut is filled with fresh creativity, involving dancers with flying feet, supple shoulders and expressive hands. Thornhill creates intricate tap steps for up-tempo chorus numbers and interprets Porter's romantic ballads in syncopated pauses executed by graceful couples.

Thornhill does double duty, also dancing as Reno's Angel 1, setting a rapid pace for the tapping chorus in "Anything Goes" and "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" and perfectly synchronizing dancing fellow Angels Amanda Cimaglia, Carlie Kidd and Lacy Schmidt in each nifty number.

On opening night, after delivering an acceptable "You're the Top" with Anderson's Sweeney, Trujillo relaxed into becoming lovelorn apprentice stockbroker Crocker to sing a romantic "Easy to Love" to debutante Hope Harcourt (Katie Gardner), who is engaged to marry British Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Jeff Sprague). Later, Trujillo and Gardner deliver "All Through the Night" in longing solos that become a duet sung from separated areas.

Gardner sings well and moves gracefully, enhancing her lovely costumes and reflecting Harcourt's lofty social set.

As the gangster Martin, ASGT favorite song-and-dance man Bowen reveals sharp comedic skills, stealing scenes and enlivening the entire show. His fun "Friendship" duet with Anderson turns a lesser Porter tune into a major highlight, and his solo "Be Like the Blue Bird" shines with comic mastery.

As Oakleigh, Sprague also reveals strong comic skills, delivering in a flawless English accent his enchantment with American slang. Sprague's Oakleigh is comically awkward dancing with Anderson's graceful Sweeney, and amusingly bumbling in his solo "Gypsy in Me" number.

As Moonface's sidekick, Erma, Emily Sergo projects combined naivete and brashness to seduce the ship's sailor crew along with most of the audience. Sergo belts out a brassy "Buddy Beware" that becomes a saucy comic delight.

Noel Milan adds comedy as ship stowaway Billy's millionaire Wall Street boss, Elisha Whitney, who is attracted to Hope's social-climbing mother, Evangeline Harcourt, played by Kathryn Huston. Ethan Goldberg plays dual bartender and bishop roles tending to lost souls.

Keeping the SS America on course are the ship's captain, played by leading music man Wendell Holland, and the purser, played by ASGT song-and-dance man Trent Goldsmith.

Adding extra vigor are several ensemble players who complete the cast of more than 20 members.

"Anything Goes" continues Thursdays through Sundays at 8:30 p.m. through June 24. For tickets, go to summergarden.com or call 410-268-9212.

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