June 28--As he sails off into his own form of retirement, which includes directing two different Stockton Civic Theatre shows next season, artistic director Jim Coleman can confidently say, "I think my work here is done."
He certainly is leaving his position on a towering wave of accomplishment, given the wonder of his last show wearing that hat, "Anything Goes," which premiered on Wednesday night and runs through July 21.
That Coleman could assemble a cast to pull off the Cole Porter winner was never in doubt, but this high-energy, foot-tapping extravaganza is a showcase on every level. The set, costumes and choreography are all first rate in the show about an up-and-coming Wall Street broker who stows away on a ship in pursuit of the girl of his dreams and is helped along by friends and his gift for disguise.
The sound system blessedly worked, too.
The ship on which "Anything Goes" takes place is courtesy of the design genius of Brian Johnson, and the moon overhead is one of those extra Johnson touches that adds to the look.
The two Cathys, or Kathies, costume designers Cathy Hastings and Kathie Dixon, had the period piece down. The world may have been in the depths of the Depression when this ship sailed in the 1930s, but the passengers aboard were living the good life and are dressed to kill.
As for the dances, Evelyn Barney out-"42nd Street"-ed herself with the big "Anything Goes" tap number and showed her versatility with waltzes, jazz numbers and the most entertaining tango the stage on Rosemarie Lane has seen.
Of course, all those behind-the-scenes elements work because of Coleman's magic touch and eye for detail, not to mention an uncanny sense of character.
He took a couple of flyers on this one, and the payoffs are undeniable.
Casting Melissa Esau as Reno Sweeney, the wizened, sultry performer was a no-brainer. Her voice is ideal for Porter's snappy music, her energy never wavers and her sense of comedy is just right. As good as she's been in recent starring roles, Esau was never better than she was in the premiere of "Anything Goes." Reno showcases all of her talents.
Where Coleman went outside the box was in casting Josh Landin as the love-struck Billy Crocker, and Grady Taylor as Evelyn Oakleigh, the British lord engaged to the girl Billy loves.
Landin, who looks like a young Robbie Benson, settled comfortably into his role when he teamed with Esau in the first act for "You're the Top." His performance strength is his singing, and with that whimsical number, he solidified Billy's chemistry with Reno and found his comfort zone. He sailed through the night, was a natural as a young man hopelessly in love and showed that all of his dance lessons have paid off.
Taylor is especially funny when Evelyn is trying to master American slang. Even more amusing, though, are the subtle moments, specifically Taylor's facial expressions in reaction to crazy incidents on the ship that carry along the story of Billy disguising himself in any number of ways to be near Hope, the woman he loves.
Even with the stage full of the 28-person cast, it's hard to take your eyes off Taylor's reactions. By the time he gets to his big number in the second act, a tango with Reno, Taylor has the audience wrapped around his finger as tightly as he wraps his leg around Reno's thigh.
The comedy duo of Steven Orr, as bungling gangster Moonface Martin, and Scott Minor as Billy's boss Eli Whitney drive much of the comedy with their antics, with Orr dressed as a priest and Eli forever singing the praises of all that is Yale, but the two never overplay. They each use a deft touch to enhance the natural comedy of the lyrics and the dialogue.
Jessica Smith is growing as an actress and is delightful as Hope, and Che Franklin is a welcome sight back on the SCT stage as her mother, Evangeling Hardcourt.
Terra Fearrand is fabulous as Moonface's sidekick, Erma, whose "Buddy Beware" number with a quartet of Sailor's is as fun as any number in the show.
The ensemble -- the sailors and Reno's back-up singers -- are just as impressive. In particular, Bill Yee, who has been part of the chorus in several shows, continues to stand out. It's not just his tap dancing that's so accomplished, but his facial expressions speak volumes.
Coleman predicted people would leave this classic show singing the songs. Maybe so, but they'll also leave with an aching jaw, because the smile the show elicits never wavers during its fast-paced run. It's just under two hours with a 15-minute intermission.
Some of his cast members noted they hoped to close out Coleman's tenure as artistic director with a bang, and they've certainly done that. And then some.
Contact reporter Lori Gilbert at (209) 546-8284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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