Roundabout Theatre’s production of Anything Goes, showing throughout this week at the Walton Arts Center, is simply fun, a quality that I dare say should never be underappreciated.
When it first premiered in 1934, it came just a few years after Black Tuesday and the Wall Street Crash of 1929, a time when Broadway saw a boom in lighthearted musicals. I think it’s no coincidence that Roundabout’s 2011 revival comes on the heels of our own modern day recession. When times are tough, we look to art to revive us, for renewal. See this show for your own dose of insouciance and joy. You’ve earned it.
Chances are you’ve already encountered a high school or community theater production of the show. It has been beloved since its inception for its easy adventure, its pure thrill. Still, there’s nothing like a great show done well. For a period piece, Anything Goes feels anything but dated (except perhaps some off-color race jokes somewhat smoothed over by more recent re-writes). The songs are inarguably transporting and timeless (even if the exquisite costumes and set are encapsulated in their own particularly glamorous world). The musical proves itself by doing what it does best again and again: effortlessly letting us loose from our cares. Director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall knows exactly what the show is meant to be, basically one great song after another strung together by a ridiculous, but pleasing plot. There is nothing to be learned here, nothing to be gained – except pure escape.
Cole Porter never underestimated the power of escapism. The man behind the original music and lyrics, Porter showcases his talents here in all of their glory. Now genre standards, “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “It’s De-lovely,” and, of course, the eponymous “Anything Goes” are songs that have infiltrated the American consciousness. It’s unsurprising then that at a moment of recovery as a nation we should remount a show like this that feeds our belief that better days are just ahead.
The story centers on the ragtag and entangled romantics aboard an ocean liner departing New York for London. The silliness of this passage is highlighted in the second scene, when the captain worries over a lack of celebrities for his upper crust passengers to ogle. A series of mistaken identity pranks ensues. Billy Crocker, played by tall drink of water Josh Franklin, stows aboard to pursue the debutante Hope Harcourt and ends up in the guise of Public Enemy #1, gangster “Snake Eyes” Johnson. Songbird beauty Alex Finke plays Harcourt, who is in turn engaged to the wealthy Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Edward Staudenmayer), cannot bring herself to disappoint her desperate, nouveau pauvre mother and denies Crocker’s earnest advances. The twists and turns of these amorous deceptions are easy to follow.
Eventually, the captain gets his wish once Crocker is captured: Public Enemy #1 is celebrity enough for anyone! The humorous turn ushers in the titular song in a bring-down-the-house, all-out tap dance rendition on a scale the likes of which I’ve never seen, recalling the synchronizings of Busby Berkeley and easily capturing the big sound and glitz of old Broadway.
Of course, the true starlet aboard (and the true star of the show) is nightclub evangelist Reno Sweeney, performed by the stunning Rachel York, who turns her attentions from her distracted friend, Crocker, to Lord Oakleigh in my favorite madcap number, “The Gypsy in Me.” Staudenmayer’s best scene, their duet is an absolute knockout. York’s turn as Reno Sweeney is hypnotically sexy. She has big shoes to fill, too, as the original show was written with the queen of musical comedy, Ethel Merman, in mind. Her voice might be somewhat more restrained than those who belted the role before her, but her power as a performer is as bright as a diamond on stage, particularly with the opening song, “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and the holy-rolling “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.” Neither lead, Franklin nor York, are the strongest dancers, but their chemistry is rich and they miss few opportunities in this musical romp.
The true gangster onboard, Fred Applegate’s gruff yet affably delightful Moonface Martin, is hiding out as a minister with his sidekick, the irresistible Erma (played unflinchingly by the brassy Joyce Chittick). Unsurprisingly, Applegate’s performance is terrific. It’d be hard to fall short with such a cast.
I hate to jump the gun before the season is quite over, but this is my early pick for the Walton Arts Center’s best musical this year. All of us need a little release from time to time. It’s spring. Don’t you just want to let everything go?
Anything Goes runs April 9-14. Tickets can be purchased by calling 479-443-5600, or at the Walton Arts Center’s website.