Anything Goes

“Times have changed,” sings Reno Sweeney to begin the titular song in Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. But one thing that hasn’t changed is that a great show from 1934 is a great show today: Cole Porter’s music stands the test of time and his beloved show is warmly welcomed back into port in 2011.

I worked on a community production of Anything Goes about 12 years ago so I fancied myself quite familiar with the show. When I first looked through the Playbill, I noticed that “I Get a Kick Out of You” was in a different place than I remembered; the character "Bonnie” was now “Erma;” and “Heaven Hop,” “Let’s Step Out,” “Let’s Misbehave” and “Take Me Back to Manhattan” were no where to be found. I began to worry.

No worries, though: This is a wonderfully fun show of pure escapism and with the changes (or perhaps because of them) the show, directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, sails smoothly at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. The production I worked on used the script from a 1960s off-Broadway revival. This production uses a reworked book, written by Timothy Crouse (a relative of original book writer Russel Crouse) and John Weidman, based on the original book by P.G. Wodehouse + Guy Bolton and Howard Lindsay + Russel Crouse. The music and lyrics are still by Cole Porter and are still de-lovely!

The plot of Anything Goes is a little silly: Reno (Sutton Foster), a nightclub singer and former evangelist, and her Angels (Charity, Purity, Chastity and Virtue) are setting sail from New York to London. Also on board are Hope Harcourt (Laura Osnes), her mother, Evangeline (Jessica Walter), and Hope's fiancé, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Adam Godley); Elisha Whitney (John McMartin), a Yalie and Wall Street banker; and Moonface Martin, Public Enemy Number 13 (Joel Grey) and his partner in crime, Erma (Jessica Stone). Billy Crocker (Colin Donnell), who is friends with Reno, stows away when he learns Hope (with whom he is in love) is on board. Billy is trying to win Hope’s hand and go unnoticed by his boss, Whitney. He takes up with Moonface and Erma (also trying to go incognito) and all sorts of disguises and hijinks ensue on the high seas.

The plot is also just an excuse to round up some great Broadway talent for some spectacular show stoppers. “Anything Goes,” which closes act one, was the most incredible song and dance number I have ever seen on stage. Almost the entire company, led by the ever-capable and perfectly cast Sutton Foster, taps for eight minutes straight in a dance break so thrilling it, alone, is worth the price of admission.

Speaking of Sutton Foster – wow! She was absolutely fantastic. I can’t praise her performance enough. When I heard she was cast as Reno, I thought, “That’s genius.” And you know what? She was. She seemed to be savoring every little bit of Reno, a dame who’s seen it all. This is a different kind of role for Foster. She is often the ingénue, playing sweeter ladies and princesses. (Literally: She was Princess Fiona in Shrek.) But last year she was dominatrix Prudence in off-Broadway’s Trust, and I think I saw a little bit of that sexy confidence in Foster’s Reno. She cracks wise and pals around with the best of them – it’s a great juicy role and Foster sinks her teeth into it.

Foster is a true triple threat and this role allows her to show off all her skills. She has a fantastic voice – that’s undeniable. And she makes it seem as if that voice flows forth from her effortlessly. I’m thinking of how she looked when she held the final (long) note in “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.” She stood back on her hip, her arms hung at her side and she just opened her mouth. Out came a powerful voice entreating Gabriel to blow his horn – it sounded heavenly. Foster is also a good actress and here she appears to relish the challenge of playing a salty grown up. And, boy can she dance. Often times, leading ladies don’t partake in the big dance numbers. Foster not only partook in but led the epic tap-dance break in “Anything Goes,” and it was nothing short of spectacular. (I’ll stop now because I think the ship might capsize if I keep flooding the waters with praise for Sutton Foster…)

By comparison, Laura Osnes, as ingénue Hope Harcourt, paled terribly. Osnes has a sweet voice and is good enough but she’s not a presence. During one number, she nearly literally faded into the scenery. I could take my eyes off of her. And she’s definitely not a dancer. During “De-Lovely,” Hope and Billy take a spin around the dance floor and Osnes was unevenly matched by her partner, Colin Donnell’s Billy. Osnes appeared stiff and uncomfortable. Still, she was serviceable and thankfully brought just the right amount of sweetness to a role that could easily overflow into treacle.

Colin Donnell’s Billy was good and engaging. He started off as a little forgettable, but as the show progressed and Donnell’s comedic chops were called upon, the handsome leading man delivered. With each new disguise and ruse, Donnell’s charm rose and it was easy to see why Hope, or any other lady, might fall in love with him. He is also a good dancer. He had a nice flair to his movements, and the zest with which he danced reminded me a little bit of City Ballet principal dancer Robert Fairchild.

Taking a page straight out of vaudeville was Joel Grey as Moonface Martin, Public Enemy Number 13. He blatantly mugged to the audience but it worked so well. His Moonface, who so badly wants to be bad, was funny and chipper and always one step behind. Grey is a theatre legend (and, as is bio states, is “one of only eight actors to have won both the Tony and Academy Award for the same role.”) and when you watch him show off in Anything Goes, it’s easy to understand why. Going head to head with Foster in “Friendship,” the two play off each other so well; they’re both hams and the audience benefits from their attention-seeking antics.

This is still in previews and based on my experience Saturday night, the one thing I think they need to work on is the timing. A couple of lines needed to be picked up and some lighting cues need tightening, but other than that this show is ready to go.

You may be asking yourself, “Self, why revive Anything Goes now?” I often wonder about this anytime a revival treads the boards. The answer is two-fold. (1) It’s a great fun show – pure escapism – so why not? (2) Because times have changed and, indeed, it seems like anything goes. In the title song, Reno sings, “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking but now, God knows, anything goes! …When every night the set that’s smart is indulging in nudist parties in studios, anything goes!” And this is just after Billy, who is mistaken for Snake Eyes Johnson, Public Enemy Number One, poses the following to the captain: If I’m Public Enemy Number One, I’ll be celebrated; if I’m just some nobody stowaway, you’ll cuff me and send me to the clink. The captain replies in the affirmative. Yes, dear readers, this is the world we live in; a world in which Snooki is on the cover of Rolling Stone; a world in which we celebrate the basest and worst behaving members of the human race in countless reality shows; and a world in which we pay more attention to Charlie Sheen than soldiers bravely serving our country. It seems as if anything goes these days.

But, truly, dear readers, this is a wonderful escape, full of Cole Porter’s songs, Joel Grey’s funny faces and Sutton Foster’s masterful everything. Hop on board because this production of Anything Goes is delightful, delicious and de-lovely!

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