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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Anything Goes
Hillbarn Theatre
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's review of The 39 Steps

Nathaniel Rothrock and Caitlin McGinty
Photo by Mark and Tracy Photography
How not to open one of the most loved and most revived musicals from the Great American Musical catalogue: A recorded overture that falls so flat in audience response that there is not a sigh heard, much less any applause when it completes. Normally, those first few notes of Cole Porter's Anything Goes have toes tapping, bodies half dancing in seats, and smiles booming on everyone's faces. After all, this 1934 musical is one where almost every song has gone on to be included in the Great American Songbook. Even an overture played by a lone pianist tripping over the keys with a live rendition of the musical's title song would have more likely done the trick of exciting the audience about what is to come than does the pre-recorded music on this particular evening.

Fortunately, as soon as the ship's captain and sailors raise full-voice and rousing harmonies in "There's No Cure Like Travel" and the full cast blends beautiful counter-melodies in "Bon Voyage," the recorded score sinks fully in the background—there to stay as an electrifying, invigorating cast of nineteen bring their spectacular voices and best dancing shoes to ensure Hillbarn Theatre's current production of Anything Goes does full justice to hit number after hit number. Under the direction of Lee Ann Payne, the cast soon proves to be first-class, delivering with glitz, glee, and gusto Cole Porter's uniquely clever lyrics, the rousing choreography (including one of the best tap numbers in all Broadway history), comical elements that make the best of vaudeville look dull, and a multi-level love story that is full of mishaps, disguises, and many happy endings for all. In the end - even minus a delicious score performed live by band or piano - this Hillbarn production proves to be silly, spectacular, and superb.

In her career co-starring in San Francisco's Beach Blanket Babylon, Caitlin McGinty has played the likes of Barbra Streisand, Hillary Clinton, and the Chiquita Banana. That ability to take on voices familiar to others and make them zing proves itself tenfold as she absolutely channels the original Reno Sweeney, Ethel Merman, while also adding her own unique flair and powerful lungs in making the role as evangelist turned nightclub singer a singularly sufficient reason to grab a ticket to see this production.

As soon as she lets loose in her first of many "wow" numbers, "You're the Top," the fashion-fancy, red-curled Reno brings big-stage presence and voice with clear homage to the 1930s movie/stage musicals and to Merman herself. Later in "I Get a Kick Out of You," she fabulously sustains notes to grab every ounce of potential, leaving her audience putty in her hands. Her vocals dip and dive, rise and fall, tempt and tantalize with tones that ring crystal clear, belt without distortion, and command revered attention.

McGinty's Reno continues to sing us across the Atlantic as she journeys from New York to London on an ocean liner full of dancing sailors, long-legged chorus girls, goofy gangsters, and goofier aristocrats. The nightclub singer is in love with a certain Wall Street broker, Billy Crocker. He joins her in a mutual love-fest song of one-upping compliments, "You're the Top," as Nathaniel Rothrock introduces us to his own dashing voice. His tenor lightly, effortlessly trips into its gorgeous heights with just enough vibration on held notes to send hearts swooning.

Billy has stowed away on the luxury liner (under what will be a number of wild and wooly disguises) in order to convince debutante and socialite Hope Harcourt (Melissa Momboisse) to marry him instead of the British stuff-ball Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (a hilarious, English-accented Michael Rhone). Billy croons in his own smooth, alluring, '30s style a song of love to Hope ("Easy to Love"), with slides up the scale that swoop superlatively.

Meanwhile, Reno has decided to help her pal Billy thwart the planned nuptials that Hope's mother, Mrs. Evangeline Harcourt (played deliciously and pompously funny by Barbara Heninger) believes will solve their current dire financial state. Reno solicits her pal Moonface Martin (Christopher Reber), a second-rate gangster and "Public Enemy Number 13," to help her in a series of silly subterfuges. From his initial disguise as the Reverend Henry G. Dobson, Reber is one of the evening's most consistent comic stars as Moonface bungles along trying desperately to be the tough guy that, at heart, he really is not. Reaffirming their longtime nightclub bonds in a crowd-pleasing duet "Friendship," Reno and Moonface sing close harmonies supplemented with coordinated pantomimes and exaggerated stage moves in a number worthy of the best vaudeville-stage duos of old.

The waves of silly shenanigans multiply by the minute as the story goes through numerous twists and turns, with every trick and trickster leading to another showstopping musical number with almost everyone getting a chance to shine at one point or another. With his stuffed Yale bulldog always at his side, Billy's blustery boss Elisha J. Whitney (who has lost his glasses in a Moonface-executed caper so that he will not detect Billy on board) sounds forth with big, booming (and martini-intoxicated) aplomb in "The Crew Song" (with Artistic Director Dan Demers hitting the ball out of the park in the role). Michael Rhone embellishes his sung notes with full bravado in "The Gypsy in Me," joined in vibrant voice, dramatic flamenco, and bull-fight simulation by Caitlin McGinty. Mixing cute and goofy with a voice that sparkles and shines, Moonlight's gal Erma delivers a rousing "Buddie, Beware" while also peppering the number with both soft-shoe moves and high-kick flurry. Moonface comes back with a full-on-funny "Be Like the Bluebird" where his expressive facial antics are supported by a booming voice that suddenly sweetens into silly "tweet-tweets" and "tra-la-la's."

With all the above stunning moments delivered by soloists and duets, what audience members may most remember are the dance numbers as choreographed and directed so magnificently by Lee Ann Payne. Mop-swinging sailors dancing up a storm in "There's No Cure Like Travel" set the scene, followed quickly by the dancing duos of Reno and Billy ("You're the Top") as well as Billy and Hope ("Easy to Love" and "It's De-Lovely"), each pair recalling the famous pairs of yesteryear's movie musicals as deep dips, high lifts, perfectly paralleled moves, and quick switches of ballroom style are employed with abundance. Especially impressive is the decision to have second-level passenger passersby mirror the main-deck dance moves of Billy and Hope in "It's De-Lovely."

Choreographer Payne and costume designer Yichuan Sharon Peng (who also designed the period-perfect hair and make-up) collaborate to make the show's "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" a terrific showstopper. Not only does Caitlin McGinty continue to bring a Broadway diva from the past voice to full bear, she appears in three different, ever-more spectacular outfits (complete with matching angelic headdresses), with her singing/dancing "Angels" (Rachelle Abbey, Alyson Chilton, Michelle Morales, Fiona O'Neill) themselves somehow disappearing and reappearing in more and more sensational wear. The costumes of the entire evening are a show unto themselves, as multiple changes for most of the passengers point to what must be a backstage cram-packed with what the socialites, sailors, chorus girls, criminals, and of course Reno, need to make this journey eye-popping.

But as big and impressive as that number is, it is act one's finale that anyone who has ever seen Anything Goes anticipates with hope and trepidation: Can this cast tap and tap like nobody's business? The answer for this Hillbarn crew is a resounding, "Yes, you bet your red, white, and blue they can!" The entire double-level stage of the ocean liner so majestically designed by Kuo-Hao Lo literally shakes and shines with tap dancers galore showing up in wave and after wave before a finale of total cast unison of toe-and-heel prowess.

Adding to the romance of the sea journey and the Vegas-look of the big numbers is the lighting design of Pamela Z. Grey. Particularly impressive is the use of spotlighted shadows of singers and dancers that add another dimension to the show's staging. And sound designer Brandie Larkin deserves special kudos for assuring every Cole Porter lyric is clearly understood by all singers as well as helping to minimize the negatives of using a pre-recorded score by making certain the recording is never overbearing and is always perfectly timed to singers and events.

For many reasons, including the two key leads and many of the outstanding supporting roles, the choreography, and the overall great comic acting by all, Hillbarn Theatre's Anything Goes is exactly what the song says: "It's delightful, it's delicious, it's de-lovely."

Anything Goes, through September 15, 2019, at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 East Hillsdale Boulevard, Foster City CA. For tickets and information, visit or call 650-349-6411.