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Theater Review: Porchlight’s ‘Anything Goes’ is Easy to Love

A de-lovely modern spin on a Broadway classic

By Entertainment, Featured

Meghan Murphy as Reno Sweeney in Porchlight Music Theatre’s 2024 production of “Anything Goes”

One of the hardest parts of loving musical theater is trying to convince people in your life who don’t like musicals to give them a chance. Musicals are often goofy, loud, or even bizarre. They have their own language where actors talk until they get so emotional they sing, and then sing until they get so emotional they dance. Even for those who love modern musicals like “Six,” “Hamilton,” and “Hadestown,” it can be hard to buy into the spectacle of classic staples of the medium. “Man of La Mancha” is certainly not for everyone, and frankly, I have never been able to sit through “Pajama Game.”

When you’re conspiring to get someone into musical theater, you have to be careful about what show and production you choose. Local Chicago theater, Porchlight Music Theatre’s spring 2024 production of “Anything Goes” might just be the perfect bait. It is a stellar production that has modern audiences laughing and cheering along to a script and score that was written by Cole Porter, Guy Bolton, and P. G. Woodhouse ninety years ago. 

Set on an ocean liner traveling from New York to London amidst the Great Depression, “Anything Goes” is a farcical story that in many ways resembles a Shakespearean comedy — but with singing and dancing instead of Elizabethan language. 

The story has been revised a lot over its nine decades, but in short: Billy Crocker is stowing away on a ship to win the heart of the girl he loves, Hope Harcourt. But it can never be that simple in musical theater: Hope is engaged to British Lord Evelyn Oakleigh; Billy has to hide from the captain of the ship as well as his own boss; meanwhile, night singer and evangelist Reno Sweeney is in love with Billy; and worst of all the boat has gangsters on board. Will Billy and Hope ever get their happy ending? Who knows because anything goes on this ship!

Luke Nowakowski portrays Billy Crocker as broad but loveable. They’re the straight man who’s willing to get roped into hijinks, and it is easy to see why Reno and Hope each fall for Billy. Nowakowski has great chemistry with all their co-stars, and they act as the glue keeping all the different elements of the show together. 

Billy Crocker may be the protagonist, but Reno Sweeney is the star of the show. Porchlight actress Meghan Murphy does a phenomenal job in the role. She’s charming and funny while still having an emotional undercurrent to her acting choices. Reno keeps the show moving and your eyes on her, and Murphy rises to the occasion. Her renditions of the titular number “Anything Goes” and the blasphemous but oh-so-catchy “Blow Gabriel Blow” are huge high points of any already wonderful production. It’s no wonder that Murphy’s face graces the show’s program. 

Emma Ogea as Hope Harcourt is the stand-out of the cast. Hope is a character that easily can be overshadowed by the larger-than-life characters that surround her, but Ogea always keeps Hope in the spotlight. She’s the emotional core of the love story, and her refrain in the song “Easy to Love” might be the most beautiful aspect of this entire staging. 

Steve McDonagh as Public Enemy Number 13 Moonface Martin, Tafadzwa Diener as the bubbly and promiscuous Erma, and Jackson Evans as the campy and ostentatious Lord Evelyn, who is obsessed with learning American slang, help round out the comedic ensemble of larger-than-life characters “Anything Goes” requires. Diener is so delightful and sunny that you can’t help but smile at every line she says. McDonagh balances sardonic and silly, and even when Evans is at his most ridiculous, you buy into Lord Evelyn’s character. 

There are two young actors, Ciara Hickey and Gabriel Solis, who play the ragamuffin orphans conning the ship’s passengers out of money. Hickey and Solis have a tough job of portraying characters meant to be a bit annoying, but for the most part, they manage to air on the side of charming. 

The rest of the cast and characters are fantastic with great senses of humor, amazing dancing and singing skills, and a lot of genuine chemistry among them. 

If there is one thing that consistently blows me away when it comes to Porchlight’s productions, it’s the set and costume design. The stage was transformed into a multi-floor ship deck, complete with furniture and even a jail cell that can roll on and off stage on cue. The period costumes are truly stunning, with nearly every character having multiple quick changes and, of course, tap shoes. My personal favorite has to be Reno’s extensive wardrobe, but it’s impossible to just pick one. 

In any production of a show as old as “Anything Goes,” there are bound to be moments that don’t age as well as others. For the most part, Porchlight’s “Anything Goes” manages to sidestep this problem, but there is one song that sadly falls flat because of this. Lord Evelyn’s main number (and spoiler: the number where the audience is privy to Evelyn and Reno falling in love) unfortunately hinges on his explanation to Reno that he has Romani lineage by repeating the phrase there’s a “gypsy in me.” It is hard to enjoy the chemistry of these characters falling for each other when the song relies on a slur for its rhyme scheme. Of course, this is not Porchlight’s fault, but a problem with any production of “Anything Goes.” I’m not sure what the politically correct solution to this would be, but either way, it took me out of the scene. 

Porchlight did make changes to the script to modernize the more problematic aspects of “Anything Goes.” The two orphan characters, played by Hickey and Soli, are traditionally very racially stereotyped Chinese gamblers. One of the ending jokes of the show is Billy and Moonface Martin dressing up in the clothing of the Chinese men and pretending to be Chinese to escape the jail cell on the ship. 

In Porchlight’s version, Billy and Moonface Martin are instead dressing up in the clothes of young boys that are visually too small for them. The latter is even walking on his knees for some scenes to pass as a short child. For them to be conscious of changing this racist aspect of the script, but not to do anything to address “The Gypsy in Me” is a disappointing aspect of the production.  

That song aside, the staging of the show is lovely, harkening back to classic musical theater without seeming outdated. Some moments are outright ridiculous, including when the entire cast breaks the fourth wall in one of the final scenes to make a truly terrible but hilarious pun, but that is all part of the fun of musical theater. 

There are also scenes that hit home emotionally. In one beautiful dance number, Hope and Billy dance in the moonlight, lamenting the life they want but cannot have together. Three ensemble couples emerge and echo the same steps as Hope and Billy. At the matinee I attended, two of the couples were same-sex couples and one was an interracial couple, implying that Billy and Hope are not the only ones dreaming of a life they want to have together, but having to settle for a clandestine nighttime waltz.

All of the dancing in this production has delectable choreography, and if I could, I’d be going back again and again just to burn the dance numbers into my mind. Every time I step out of Porchlight, I know I’m going to be coming back again — either to see the same show over and over or to have the pleasure of seeing what they stage next. 

If you love theater or are trying to convince someone in your life to love theater, catch “Anything Goes” before it closes on March 10. 

Sidne K. Gard (BFAW 2025) hopes to one day understand how to make their own monsters. They are the entertainment editor at F Newsmagazine. See more of their work at sidnekgard.com.
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