Can a ship sink a show? Neil Patel's cheap-looking set, which turns the S.S. American into the S.S. Minimalist, doesn't exactly launch the Williamstown Theater Festival summer season opener "Anything Goes" with any sense of class, style or wit.

Can a ship sink a show? Neil Patel’s cheap-looking set, which turns the S.S. American into the S.S. Minimalist, doesn’t exactly launch the Williamstown Theater Festival summer season opener “Anything Goes” with any sense of class, style or wit. And what happens once the voyagers get aboard does little to make this theatrical voyage anything more than a very rough crossing, with the cast desperately clinging to the Cole Porter melodies like preservers.

The 1934 book, even with its 1964 revised version (which smartly appropriates “Let’s Misbehave” and “Take Me Back to Manhattan”), is still nevertheless made up of throwaway liner notes with little care to character or sense. If the show is to succeed, its silliness and making-it-up-as-they-go-along feel requires the deftest of touches to achieve what seems to be a grand frolic rather than an amateurish mess.

Alas, here the champagne has lost the fizz. Under a.d. Roger Rees’ clunky helming, the worst aspects of the script are clearly evident while few charms are on display. Only the familiar tunes give the audience any reprieve from feeling trapped in a Carnival cruise from hell — and even some of the production numbers are delivered minus the pizzazz one expects from the pros assembled for this production.

The plot, such as it is, centers on a loopy group of mismates heading to London: an escaping (but lovable) gangster, Moonface Martin (Remy Auberjonois), and his snappy moll (the indefatigable Catherine Brunell); a brassy nightclub singer-turned-evangelist (Sharon Lawrence); a pompous financier (Tom Bloom); his hustling stockbroker (Matt Cavenaugh); an English aristocrat (Malcolm Gets); his lovely fiancee (Nikki Renee Daniels); and her status-conscious mother (Sandra Shipley).

The illogical story and groaning comedy seem to have been spliced from outtakes of Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields and Jimmy Durante movies. Problem is there are no legendary vaudevillians who can turn such corn into ethanol, nor anyone who has veteran instincts that could — with a patented look or affectionate take — transform embarrassing lines into shameless fun. Auberjonois comes closest in a go-for-it perf as Moonface; ditto Brunell as his petite, feisty and big-belting sidekick.

Alas, big belt is not a phrase that leaps to mind in describing Sharon Lawrence’s Reno Sweeney, a dame of a part played most memorably by Ethel Merman and Patti LuPone in the original and latest Broadway version. Lawrence, a likable presence onstage, just doesn’t have the chops to land the big or sensual numbers such as “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” and “I Get a Kick Out of You” — though she does make a better connection with comic numbers such as “You’re the Top” and “Friendship.”

The usually reliable Malcolm Gets is miscast as the Brit twit, unable to hide his leading man looks and inherent sexiness behind a mere monocle and an effete accent. Attempts to make something seriously libidinous between him and Reno may try to make sense of the casting but misses much of the juxtaposition of the joke.

Daniels is a bit of a bore as fiancee Hope, though Cavenaugh shows off the most secure and terrific voice, keeping the show’s hero buoyant and the musical afloat.

Tim Foster’s summer-stock-style choreography is limited to basic steps and some cheesy poses for the two-dozen-plus chorus of apprentices. Music by the six-piece band in the back of the stage is thin and distant, and it appears that they may be escaping the show on a lifeboat. No on would blame them.

Anything Goes

Williamstown Theater Festival, Williamstown, Mass.; 511 seats; $61 top

Production

A Williamstown Theater Festival presentation of a musical in two acts. Music and lyrics by Cole Porter. Book by Guy Bolton, P.G. Wodehouse, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Directed by Roger Rees.

Creative

Sets, Neil Patel; costumes, Kaye Voyce; lighting, Frances Aronson; sound, Nick Borisjuk; stage management, Adam Grosswirth; production management, Michael Wade; choreography, Tim Foster; additional orchestrations and arrangements and music direction, Edward Barnes. Opened July 6, 2006. Reviewed July 8. Runs through July 16. Running time: 1 HOUR 50 MIN.

Cast

Elisha J. Whitney - Tom Bloom Sir Evelyn Oakleigh - Malcolm Gets Mrs. Wadsworth T. Harcourt - Sandra Shipley Hope Harcourt - Nikki Renee Daniels Reno Sweeney - Sharon Lawrence Billy Crocker - Matt Cavenaugh Moonface Martin - Remy Auberjonois Bonnie - Catherine Brunell Purser - Kirby Ward Captain - Paul O'Brien
With: Danny Mefford, Joe Plummer, Lance Rubin, Bill Batemen, Crystal Chapman, Greg Hildreth, Ian Scott McGregor, Kate Blacksmith, Caitlin Cassidy, Ben Diskant, Evan Enderle, Sam Harrell, Benjamin Izzo, Sarah Masse, Ryan Nearhoff, Elizabeth Ness, Anastasia Niemann, Emily Pinas, Phillip Pineno, Kevin Reed, Kate Rose, Stephanie Rosenberg, Kyle Schaefer, Tro Shaw, Stephen Stocking. Angels: Lisa Birnbaum, Xanthe Elbrick, Sarah Turned, Liz Wisan.

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