The year-old Renegade Theater has already proved that it can do stupid very well. Its last production, "Comic Briefs," featured four one-acts whose mostly low humor was delivered with crisp direction and consummate timing. The often-broad playlets were breezy 'n' easy, belying the skill required to make successful the staging of even the best-written comedies.
Renegade is currently trying its hand at another seeming home run: Cole Porter's "Anything Goes." But with the genre switch, the young company is showing its youth. Something's amiss when the weakest component of a Porter musical is the singing and dancing, and though "Anything Goes" is full of whimsical gems such as "You're the Top," "Let's Misbehave" and, of course, the title tune, the performances in Renegade's production rarely are rousing.
"Anything Goes" was first staged in 1934; director Laurie Gilkenson is working here from the script of the show's 1962 off-Broadway revival. The lighthearted story takes place on an ocean liner traveling from the United States to England, on which identities are mistaken and love connections are made: There's Billy (Timothy King), who stows away on the voyage to woo Hope (Belen Pifel) -- the two have spent one romantic evening together, but he has been unable to contact her since then.
Hope, in fact, is now engaged to a foppish Englishman, Sir Evelyn (Nadim Nader), who doesn't seem to have a romantic bone in his body until he's seduced by Reno (Naomi Uyama), a tarty celebrity evangelist who travels with lipsticked "Angels" and announces her whereabouts with "If I'm not in the chapel, I'll be at the bar."
The love stories and idol worship, both of Reno and of the infamous Public Enemy No. 1, a thug whose identity Billy unwittingly adopted in order to get on board, keep "Anything Goes" timeless. And, once again, Renegade gets the funny stuff right: Nader's Evelyn, with pasted-on smile and "monocle in his throat," is a continual source of laughs, as is Nina Gilkenson's brash Bonnie LeTour, whose platinum bob and Noo Yawk accent perfectly unsettle the ship's more refined passengers.
But Dino Coppa, the standout in "Comic Briefs," again steals the show, this time with a terrific portrayal of gangster Moonface Martin that's part Joe Pesci, part Barney Rubble.
Renegade's "Anything Goes" never quite comes to life, however, suffering mainly from a lack of polish that, to be fair, would be a lot to ask of a small, new theater company. None of the cast members boasts a terribly strong voice, which along with the bare-bones accompaniment of a four-person band makes each musical number seem a bit strained. (One exception is the spirited "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," performed by the full cast.) The set, too, could use a boost: White walls with portholes and a few deck chairs certainly conjure a ship, but with nothing else to look at, one more often notices the badly scuffed stage floor. Most of the production, sadly, feels amateurish, though considering Renegade's promising start, it's likely a case of ambition exceeding experience.
Anything Goes, music and lyrics by Cole Porter; book by Guy Bolton, P.G. Wodehouse, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Directed by Laurie Gilkenson. Music director, Michael DiGiacinto; assistant director, Carsen Labella; choreography, Naomi Uyama, Nina Gilkenson, Carsen Labella and Jordan Burnett; lighting, Sarah Florance and Annie Mosher; set, Laurie Gilkenson and GALA Hispanic Theater; costumes, Nina Gilkenson and Naomi Uyama. Approximately two hours. Through July 18 at Warehouse Theater, 1021 Seventh St. NW. Call 301-871-1487 or visit www.renegadedc.org.