by Larry Austin
The music department at Grand Island High School has turned its ship around 180 degrees in presenting "Anything Goes" as its spring musical this year.
GIHS turns from last year's French drama "Les Miserables," to the classic American romantic comedy "Anything Goes."
Carolyn Lokken, who directs the musical with Michael DeDario, said "Anything Goes" was chosen in September as this year's spring musical, but it was long talked about as a musical to revive at GIHS after the school staged it in 1995.
When DeDario began teaching dance steps on the first day of auditions for "Anything Goes," one of the students asked as they danced, "Should we be smiling?"
"Yeah, nobody dies in this one," he said.
"The jokes are just set 'em up and knock 'em down," DeDario said. "We needed that after last year, we needed something a little lighter, and I think this is doing the job for us."
Lokken called it "a musical I would love to repeat. It's just a great show. It's one of the funniest shows ever written, I think. Great parts, great characters, terrific songs, Cole Porter songs, great dance routines, a wonderful tap show. It's a real cartoon of characters."
Every production of "Anything Goes," from Broadway revivals to movie versions, is different, Lokken reminded. The 1995 production at GIHS was based on the 1964 version from Broadway, while this year's show is based on the 1984 edition. Hardcore fans of the show will still hear classic songs such as "I Get a Kick Out of You," "You're the Top," "Anything Goes," and "Blow Gabriel, Blow." Some other songs have been substituted in spots, but the high school show is not a watered down version of the Broadway show.
"We could do it every year and it would be different," Lokken said.
The cast and crew has about 80 students.
When the Grand Island's production sets sail, junior Maggi Chauby will play Reno Sweeney, a role made famous by stars such as Ethel Merman, Patti Lupone and most recently on Broadway by Sutton Foster. Chauby is a soprano, playing a traditionally belter role.
"People do like more serious stuff, but a lot of people like to go to performances to just be entertained and get away from the nagging, annoying things of life, and just enjoy something that's funny and relaxing," Chauby said. "It's very up-tempo, and I think it kind of gives that kind of energy to the audience when they leave, so they leave with a new song and that energy from the show."
Chauby has performed at Carnegie Hall, and had a showstopping number in "The Sound of Music" with the St. Stephen's Parish Players.
"Maggi has a beautiful voice that can really project those songs. They're big numbers, a big personality that goes with that character, and Maggi's able to pull it off," DeDario said.
Reno is very "no-holds-barred. She really speaks her mind," Chauby said. "It's interesting because throughout the entire show you think, 'Oh, she's got it all. She's got the beautiful dresses, she's got everybody chasing after her, she's got the fame and fortune, but the one thing that she kind of lacks in her life is love."
Chauby is hardly no-holds-barred herself, she said.
"Oh, not at all," she said. "But I do have a lot of great friends and it's interesting because when I get to play Reno, I get to kind of step out of my comfort zone and be kind of that really loud person who doesn't apologize for anything. She just kind of goes for it."
Dalton Pitts plays who he describes as a smooth, casual ladies man, Billy Crocker, a schmoozer to his boss, who is trying to win over Hope Harcourt, played by Kamra Phillips. The plot centers on Crocker as he stows away onboard the boat chasing Hope as she and her fiancé Evelyn and her mother sale for England.
Pitts made his acting debut last year in "Les Miz."
"We were impressed with how he did last year, and he had a great audition this year to play Billy, and he's been doing a great job," DeDario said.
"He's able to fill the shoes" in a bigger role," DeDario said.
The audience will have an easy time pulling for Pitts and Phillips, who have a natural chemistry on stage.
"It's fun," Pitts said of performing with Phillips. "We have this weird thing where we can't really look at each other because our whole friendship is based off of making random faces, and now we have to, like, stare with a completely straight face. Like in the song "Easy to Love," we have to look at each other straight-faced."
Like last year's "Les Miz," the cast of the musical has depth. Moonface Martin (Dan Konopski), Eli Whitney (Nick Winger) and Evelyn (Keelan Erhard) are especially over-the-top funny, Pitts said.
Konopski said last year's musical was "big," "But this is big in the sense you're going to walk out of here with a big smile on your face."
Moonface Martin, Public Enemy No. 13, is "an actual gangster, he's just not very good at what he does." Moonface disguises himself as a priest and hides inside a trunk, hiding with Billy on board as they and Moon's sidekick Erma (Amanda Weselak) remain one step ahead of the pursuing crew.
Konopski said he enjoys performing in the annual musical for the chance to be around likeminded people who inspire and help each other to reach their potential.
"It's the most fun I have all year," Konopski said. "And from the day it ends until the next time, I'm already looking forward to and waiting to find out what the next musical will be."
Phillips lived and went to school in Oklahoma, performing in a musical there. She notes a difference in the musicals here since she moved to the Island.
"The cast is so much more bonded here. There's something about the cast of the musical at Grand Island that is just like a family," Phillips said. "Even though there is obviously going to be some drama when you have 100 teenagers in a room at one time, it's just different. There's something magical about musicals that can just bring people who normally wouldn't have ever talked to each other and make them really good friends."
Erhard, a senior, plays Evelyn Oakleigh as a wacky, quirky Brit with a tin ear for American expressions. He enters his fourth musical at GIHS after playing the lead of Valjean last year in "Les Miz."
"I feel like it's just a great feeling to be in a show, and it's so much fun to put on one, especially when it all comes together in the end," he said. "It's really something to look forward to, and it's especially great to be able to perform and share what you've accomplished over the past two months with everybody that's there to see the show. And it's great to see them hopefully walk out with a smile on their faces."
This year's show is "more fun, dancey, makes you kind of snap your fingers and tap your feet while you're in the audience watching it," Erhard said.
Anyone who liked the GIHS production of "Thoroughly Modern Millie" three years ago in 2010 will enjoy the tap dancing in this year's production. Chauby and Pitts are inexperienced dancers, but don't look out of their element in the show's big dance numbers. GIHS senior Mads Goc is the choreographer.
"She's been a huge help. We wouldn't have been able to do the show without her," DeDario said of Goc, adding that although students in the past have helped with the dance numbers in the spring musical, "Probably Mads has done more than any student ever has. A lot of times when we have a dance show, we won't pick a dance show unless we have a feature dancer or dancers that can help put together the big numbers," DeDario said.
Goc said she was grateful for the opportunity to choreograph the show. She called the dance numbers all "very bold and loud."
"Our goal when (DeDario) and I worked together was to try and get the audience to want to come up and join the boat and come on this cruise and almost make it like a little escape from real life," Goc said.
A production of the Grand Island High School Music Department, directed by Carolyn Lokken and Michael DeDario, with musical direction by Martin Allen, and choreography by Mads Goc.
Friday, Feb. 1, and Saturday, Feb. 2, 7:30 p.m. each night.