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Aboard a ship of fools, ‘Anything Goes’ provides a musical high-water mark

As leading lady Reno Sweeney, Erica Evans (center) is a powerhouse in the Music Theater Works production of "Anything Goes!" | BRETT BEINER

There’s a reason Cole Porter’s songs are often referred to as “standards.” The composer-lyricist set an enduring benchmark with his show tunes, no more so than in his 1934 musical “Anything Goes.” The score to the shenanigans-at-high-seas story includes a bevy of old-school delights, including the messianic barn-burner “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” the whimsically romantic “It’s De-lovely” and the unstoppable title tune.

Music Theater Works’ Broadway-sized revival of “Anything Goes” does a fine job delivering that delightful score. Directed by Rudy Hogenmiller with music direction by conductor Roger L. Bingaman, the lavish production looks and sounds great. But not even Bingaman’s 16-person orchestra can drown out a libretto that’s aged badly.

The original book (by P.G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse) has been revised at least three times. Hogenmiller uses Timothy Crouse and John Weidman’s version. Despite updates, the dialogue contains some cringe-worthy moments. For example: The lone Asian characters are recent converts to Christianity, which is played as a broadly comic subplot. Their salvation doesn’t stop with Jesus. The Asians (no provenance is given) grin and nod when told that they must replace chopsticks and rickshaws in favor of forks and cars.

‘Anything Goes’

★★★

When: Through Aug. 26

Where: Music Theater Works at Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St., Evanston

Tickets: $34-$96 (half price for those 25 and younger)

Info: www.MusicTheaterWorks.com

Run time: 2 hours, 45 minutes, with one intermission

Or, take the scene when an alcohol-addled Wall Street tycoon mistakenly woos a (male) sailor. When the rich man realizes his mistake, he’s horrorstruck. Accidentally acting gay, it seems, is cause for shame and alarm, both played as broad comedy.

Finally, three of the four female characters are stereotypes of the laziest, most reductive ilk. There is the man-crazy vixen, the sweet girl-next-door and the hysterical harridan of a certain age. The show-saving exception is — thankfully — the leading lady, Reno Sweeney. A nightclub singer with an incandescent presence and a razor-wit, Reno’s character almost singlehandedly keeps “Anything Goes” afloat.

MTW’s Reno is Erica Evans, a powerhouse from start to finish. Evans is a potent mix of Jayne Mansfield, Lucille Ball, Cyd Charisse and Lauren Bacall. She has legs for days, which makes choreographer Clayton Cross’ Ziegfeld Follies-meets-vaudeville-meets-classic-Fred-and-Ginger dances dazzle.

Evans has a voice and a presence worthy of the role. Her “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” is unadulterated joy and sensual enough to make a bishop kick through a stain glass window. Her delivery of the pile-driving “Anything Goes” has the pop and fizz of top-shelf bubbly being downed in fabulously reckless amounts. Evans makes it all look effortless, as if doing a knee-to-nose kick and belting on key for a few hundred consecutive measures required no more effort than ordering an egg salad sandwich.

The featherweight plot is more birdbrained than a flock of seagulls. It’s basically an excuse to showcase the music and the choreography. The antics on this ship of fools revolve around all-American beauty Hope Harcourt (a sweet, chirpy Lexis Danca) and struggling stockbroker Billy Crocker (an earnest Ken Singleton). Billy loves Hope and vice versa. Alas, Hope is betrothed to Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Maxwell DeTogne, a rubber-limbed physical comedian whose prowess for satirical tango matches his gift for delivering Lord Oakleigh’s endlessly amusing malapropisms). The marriage is only taking place so that the Oakleigh family fortune can save the Depression-walloped Harcourts from penury. (Hope’s father jumped off a building after the Wall Street Crash. The suicide is used as a punchline.)

Ken Singleton and Erica Evans in “Anything Goes!” | BRIAN BEINER
Ken Singleton and Erica Evans in “Anything Goes!” | BRIAN BEINER

Also on board: A lesser gangster named Moonface Martin (Brian Zane, about as menacing as a Stradivarius), his moll Erma (Kayla Boye, a squeaky-voiced seductress), Hope’s mother (Liz Norton, shriller than a banshee at high tide), the perpetually tippled Wall Street tycoon Elisha Whitney (Rick Rapp, deftly staggering the fine line between obnoxious drunk and charming drunk) and a bevy of randy sailors and bouncy showgirls. The ensemble struggles throughout with timing and mugging. Bits that could be funny becoming sluggish and/or garish instead.

Still, the production looks and sounds amazing. Costume designer Alex Weinzierl’s glamorous gowns fit as if they were bespoke from Savile Row and created by tailors using molten gemstones instead of fabric. Bingaman’s command of his 16-piece orchestra is flawless. The score’s rich complexity shines through with a lushness you simply won’t hear when it’s played by the stripped-down combos favored by most local musical theaters.

The upshot? Evans is fabulous. Ditto the orchestra, the choreography and the costuming. The libretto, not so much. But you could do worse than setting sail with Reno Sweeney. Even when the seas get choppy.