THE SS AMERICAN IS A FULL THROTTLE CELEBRATION WITH POPPING CHAMPAGNE AND
A “YOU’RE THE TOP” CAST AND CREW
The SS American cruise ship and ANYTHING GOES has parked in Foster City at the Hillbarn Theatre through September 15th and it is de-lovely. The Hillbarn opens its celebrated 79th season of great theatre with this Cole Porter classic. This “pop” of a champagne bottle is sure to bring a smile to anyone who attends this “De- Lovely” excuse for song and dance. Back in 1934 when this show premiered with a young Ethel Merman, it was considered a bit risque, but this company reminds us that no matter how mindless this ship is, ANYTHING GOES is an American classic.
Artistic Director of Hillbarn, the bubbly Dan Demers, has assembled an excellent cast and director to bring some of Porter's best tunes to this revival. “You’re the Top”, “I get a Kick Out of You” “It's De-Lovely” and “Friendship”. Some of the songs have been added along the way of this show’s history on stage. The script was written by creator P.G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton and Russel Crouse. This 1987 version has been revised by his son Tim Crouse and John Weidman. The show was later rewritten a few times for its later 2011 Broadway revival. It is a cruise ship still in motion including the clever updates Director/Choreographer Lee Ann Payne added to his celebration of Cole Porter.
Director Payne says, “In my early days I appeared as Reno Sweeney, and later I directed this show four times, and this Hillbarn version is the best of all four combined with this remarkable cast.” This 19 member cast is on course - everyone of them from the A list of local stages. The swank Caitlin McGinty as Reno Sweeney controls this ship, belting out Porter's songs, she opens with the classic “You’re The Top”. Her co- star on stage is Nathaniel Rothrock as the dapper stowaway, Billy Crocker, and they both charmed the Hillbarn sold out opening night crowd. The new season at the Hillbarn treats their fans to new seating, comfy new lounge furniture perfect for this champagne cruise.
The story, of course, a love sitcom with all the standard plot twists and madness of 30’s musicals. I was so pleased the Asian racism that the original book includes has been softened. Payne’s team did an amazing job changing the tone of the formerly two Asian characters created by Bolton and Wodehouse. "ANYTHING GOES was written back in 1934 when humor was blatantly derogatory, this perspective was tossed overboard by our company” says AD Demers. The accomplished Andrew Kracht and Ron Munekawa play the two gambling East European stowaways.
The show is hilarious; a Marx Brothers romp, featuring star-crossed lovers, mistaken and hidden identities, and enough one-liners and slapstick to keep the audience giggling on a sea of laughter. “I get no kick from champagne. Mere alcohol doesn't thrill me at all. So, tell me why should it be true, that I get a kick out of you?” the classic theme of this Broadway Icon. The young stockbroker Billy Crocker played by the savvy Rothrock, who at times shows off his first rate voice. Crocker is in love with debutante Hope Harcourt played by Melissa Momboisse who is set to marry Sir Oakleigh, played by the ideal Michael Rhone.
Hillbarn AD and local favorite Dan Demers plays the blinded boss Mr Whitney who is misdirected throughout the story. It is always a pleasure to see Demers on stage; he carries the show. The frisky Barbara Heninger plays Hope’s mom, Mrs Harcourt, with her furry dog in her arms; she is very funny in the role.
In less polished productions the story can become merely a vessel for the songs. This certainly doesn’t happen on the Hillbarn stage. Every word is crisp and clear thanks in part to Sound Designer, Brandle Larkin, and Music Director, Ben Belew, allowing laughs as the pacing is electric using a recorded track that fits the energy of the show. McGinty and cast are infectious in the icon tap dance number “Anything Goes” choreographed by Payne, it includes the whole company in a show stopping classic way to close a first act.
The story embraces the “Guys and Dolls” perfection as the low end, comic sidebar gangster, Moonface Martin, played by Christopher Reber who provides some of the best humor for this ride. The brilliant Jessica Maxey plays Erma the female gangster and is perfect in “Buddie Beware”. The female leads are dressed to shine by Yichuan Sharon Peng’s gowns; they at times become the show. Reno is always in satin and is highlighted by the brilliant costumes especially in the over the top “Blow Gabriel” show stopping second act company number.
The art deco of the ship is also a scene stealer, designed by the clever Kuo-Hao Lo, his set is so very vintage two level Cruise ship. We have seen this ship on many stages with the two staircases and many doorways to get the actors in and out, but Lo’s set is one of the stars of this show. The lighting design by Pamela Grey is so colorful, the highlight is the water reflection from shining sea onto the SS sails. “Blow Gabriel” has some of the best back lighting that highlights the cast number. Prop master Christina Sturken brings two stuffed dogs to the cast that are cuddly, and all the champagne glasses, gambling cards, and Moonface’s guns you need to make this voyage. Stage manager Aya Matsutomo has to keep the cast entering from all corners of the Hillbarn, and the many doorway comic moments are timed well.
Tap dancing is, of course, what we come to see on this ship and Payne’s and Mike Saenz’ choreography is wonderfully highlighted by the high stepping “All Through The Night” and “Gabriel”. Other players to mention include the classy Head Captain played by local favorite Zaya Kolia who brings his comic touch to “Public Enemy Number One”.
The sailor company includes the talented Kyle Arrouzet as the ships busy Purser and Ryan Cordero as the Reverend who both have the perfect comic timing. The sexy glam Angels that shadow Reno include Rachelle Abbey, Alyson Chilton, Emily Maupin, Michelle Morales and the high kicking Fiona OHeill. Andrew Kracht, Ron Munekawa and keen dance captain Mike Saenz fill in for the bouncy sailors and crew and truly keep the show bright and a delight.
Throughout the show the cast is jazz hand strong and apparently delighted to be singing and dancing together. Director Payne keeps this production impressively high energy; you get wonderful positive feeling coming from the stage. ANYTHING GOES is an Icon of American Musical history and a delight. Next up at the Hillbarn’s 79th season is IT’S ONLY A PLAY that opens October 10th and NEWSIES is the Holiday show. Next summer the Ladies of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES fill the Hillbarn stage. But in the meantime this dazzling diamond is the best way to start your fall theatre season. Don’t miss this fun and bring your own champagne glass, tickets are going fast so book the SS American soon.
HILLBARN THEATRE PRESENTS
Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
Original Book by P.G. Wodehouse & Guy Bolton
and Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse
New Book by Timothy Crouse & John Weidman
Directed/Choreographer Lee Ann Payne
Music Director Ben Belew
Scenic Design by Kuo-Hao Lo
Must close September 15, 2019
1285 East Hillsdale Blvd.
Foster City, CA 94404
Two hours 15 min with an intermission
Photos by Tracy Martin and Mark Kitoka