On Stage: “Anything Goes”

Last Saturday I made what I am embarrassed to say was my first trip to a Broadway theater this calendar year.  Given the crop of shows that lingered on the Great White Way this winter, you can’t exactly blame me.  But spring has sprung in the theater district, if nowhere else, and a bevy of new productions are opening like so many flowers.

With some faithful theater-going friends at my side, I took in a matinée performance of the Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of the oft-revived Anything Goes.  I’m pleased to report that the show, much like the ocean liner on which its action is set, sails smoothly under the stable though static direction of Kathleen Marshall.

Anything Goes is an old-fashioned musical of the highest order.  Its pliable plot is a jumble of missed connections, mistaken identities, and star-crossed romances.  Its book is filled with wink-wink puns and barbless innuendo.  It traffics in archetype and stereotype just up to the point of being insulting to modern audiences.  Suffice to say, it’s harmless though not purposeless entertainment; it’s purpose just so happens to be nothing more than to entertain the hell out of you for two or so hours.

The show does so almost solely on the strength of its score, written by one of the early 20th century masters, Cole Porter.  The original score was solid enough.  It included the invigorating title number, the electrifying gospel anthem “Blow, Gabriel, Blow”, and the playful “You’re The Top”, which is like Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” for the Depression Era set.  But over the show’s many revisions and revivals, a number of Porter’s other songs have been added to the piece.  This production follows the set list concocted for the Lincoln Center revival in the late 1980s, which means we get the delightful “De-Lovely” and bawdy “Buddy, Beware” as well.  Porter’s songs lend themselves to exciting and eye-catching movement, and Kathleen Marshall outdoes herself also acting as the production’s choreographer.  It’s clear after the outrageous tap dancing at the end of Act I that this is where he strengths truly lie.

Hoofing their way through the show is a cast that appears to be having a ball.  Their enthusiasm almost makes up for the lack of charisma or chemistry.  As the show’s central charming rogue, Colin Donnell makes a decent debut, even if he lacks the magnetism the book suggests his character possesses.  His love interest is played by Laura Osnes, she of Marshall’s infamous Grease revival.  She’s not much of an actress, but is a surprisingly accomplished dancer.  The two Fred-and-Ginger-esque dances Donnell and Osnes share radiate more emotion and sex appeal than any of their dialogue together.  Adam Godley plays the bumbling British bachelor keeping them apart with solid timing and rubbery physicality, but his voice is too weak to not be distracting, even in a hammy role such as this.  Also chewing the scenery are John McMartin as a blue-blood with a very high blood-alcohol content, and Arrested Development‘s Jessica Walter, playing yet another manic matriarch.  Broadway legend Joel Grey plays Moonface Martin, a hapless gangster who is more Droopy Dog than Dillinger.  He’s endearing, but in playing it so meek, the already diminutive Grey almost disappears.  I adored Jessica Stone, who played Moonie’s man-crazed moll, Erma.  She easily stole the show at least three times, and her number late in Act II was a welcome surprise.

Standing head and shoulders above them all, literally and figuratively, is Sutton Foster as Reno Sweeney, the sultry saver of souls who couldn’t possibly practice what she preaches.  Foster is like the beautiful maiden’s likeness mounted on the prow of an ancient vessel; she leads this ship and its passengers fearlessly into the deep.  Her voice is big and strong, her delivery is dry and droll, and her dancing is exact and eye-popping (propelled, as it is, by the two longest legs on Broadway).

Sutton Foster and her version of Hell's Angels

Anything Goes isn’t perfect, but Marshall and her cast can’t be faulted for starting with some of the shallowest material in the theater canon.  Some jokes don’t land and some performances don’t click, but you rather quickly forget about that when you see 35 people pounding the crap out of the floorboards in their tap shoes.  Honestly, if you can get cheaper seats up in the mezzanine, the last ten minutes of the first act and the first ten minutes of the second are worth the price of admission.

~ T


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