Music appreciation

Laurie Burns says it's great fun playing the role of Reno Sweeney in Schenectady Light Opera Company
From left, Adam Coons as Moonface, Michael C. Mensching as Billy Crocker and Laurie Burns as Reno Sweeney in SLOC’s "Anything Goes."
From left, Adam Coons as Moonface, Michael C. Mensching as Billy Crocker and Laurie Burns as Reno Sweeney in SLOC’s "Anything Goes."

Laurie Burns doesn’t claim to be a theater historian, and she’s certainly not a Cole Porter aficionado. She does, however, have some idea of just who Ethel Merman was.

“I can always hear her singing that one song in my head, ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business,” her famous song,” said Burns, a Niskayuna native and Clifton Park resident who stars in the Schenectady Light Opera Company production of “Anything Goes,” opening Friday night and running through May 18. “I don’t know that many of her songs, but I’ve seen that clip a million times and I love that song. The vocal range is right where I am.”

Burns will play Reno Sweeney in “Anything Goes,” a character made famous by Merman in the 1934 Broadway production with Bing Crosby and a 1954 television special with Frank Sinatra. Her signature song, “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” is from the Broadway production of “Annie Get Your Gun,” although Merman also filmed a version of that tune for a 1954 movie by that name celebrating musical theater.

“I know she’s also famous for the Reno Sweeney part, but I’ve never seen the film or a stage version of it,” said Burns, who is making her SLOC debut. “But I know Ethel Merman is great, and it’s a really fun character to play.”

’Anything Goes’

WHERE: Schenectady Light Opera Company

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; 8 p.m. May 8-11; 8 p.m. May 17; and 2 p.m. May 18

HOW MUCH: $20-$10

MORE INFO: 1-877-350-7378 or www.sloctheater.org

“Anything Goes” was one of five Porter musicals Merman played a big part in on Broadway. The story centers on a young Wall Street broker named Billy Crocker, played by Michael Mensching, who stows away on an ocean liner in the hope of winning the heart of Hope Harcourt, played by Casey Dinkin. Hope is heading across the Atlantic Ocean to marry English nobleman Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, played by Bob Hegeman. Sweeney, a nightclub singer and a friend of Crocker’s, agrees to help him win Hope away from Lord Eveyln and in so doing falls for the Englishman.

“It’s a fast-paced story with a very funny story line,” said Burns. “There are certainly no slow spots in the show, and the music is just great. I can’t really say that I was a Cole Porter fan before I started working on this show. I didn’t know that much about him, but then I started recognizing all the songs. It was like, ‘Oh, he wrote that. Oh, he wrote that, too.’ I guess I have to say now that I am a Cole Porter fan.”

Porter lived from 1891 to 1964, and his career on Broadway was nearly as long, beginning in 1915 with “Hands Up,” and coming to a close in 1956 with “Mr. Wonderful.” While “Anything Goes” remains one of his most produced plays, “Kiss Me Kate” was probably his biggest success, winning four Tonys including Best Musical of 1948.

“There’s music for everybody in this show,” said Eric Shovah, who is directing the production. “There’s great dance numbers, there’s some bold and brassy numbers, and there’s some beautiful sentimental songs. ‘I Get a Kick Out of You’ still really works after all these years. The characters are great, and Porter’s music seems to be able to bring out their inner feelings and accentuate the comic moments. His music has a timeless appeal to it.”

Perfect for the part

“Anything Goes” requires a large cast and those numbers brought out a great response for the audition process, according to Shovah.

“We had 60 to 70 people audition, and a lot of them were really talented,” he said. “We had a great response for Reno Sweeney, but eventually Laurie made it an easy decision. What drew me to her was her vocal quality. She has that nightclub kind of voice with a little bit of raspiness but also great control. It really lends itself to that period of music.

“She also had some great readings and she’s a very strong dancer as well,” said Shovah. “She doesn’t just sing ‘Anything Goes.’ She’s able to join right in with the tappers. I didn’t know that much about her when she auditioned, but once she got here, she really stood out in the crowd.”

Burns performed last summer in “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” mounted by Center Stage Productions at Freedom Park in Scotia, but her two young children keep her pretty busy. After being involved in the drama club at Niskayuna High School (she sang in “West Side Story” and “The Fantasticks), Burns went to the State University of New York College at Oneonta and got her undergraduate and master’s degree in speech communication. She taught in Brooklyn for two years, but moved back to the Capital Region with her husband in 1993.

“I didn’t sing for a long time,” said Burns, whose sister, Christine Marcella of Center Stage Productions, got her back on the stage. “My sister has done a lot of community theater, and when somebody dropped out or got sick, she’d give me a call to fill in. So, I started back up with her.”

Family a factor

Although she may not have been performing that much in public, Burns never stopped singing.

“I do love performing, but, with two young kids, about one show a year is all I can do,” she said. “The time commitment away from my family is huge. I never took lessons, but I’ve always been able to sing. And it seems the more I sing, the stronger my voice gets.”

“She’s a belter,” Mensching said of Burns, “and this style of music suits my voice. I think rehearsal is going very well.”

“I think this is a great end-of-the-season show for us,” said Shovah. “It’s a lot of fun for us putting it on, and I think everyone will love the characters. You get attached to them, and then the music just carries you along.”

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