Theater Review: Why Anything Goes Deserves Ocean of Accolades

You could apply any of these iconic Cole Porter titles to the production of Anything Goes that’s currently playing at the Winspear: “You’re the Top,” “It’s De-lovely,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “Easy to Love.” That’s because the musical, out on its first national tour following a smash Broadway run, has an abundance of showstopping production numbers and more fizz than a champagne cocktail.

This incarnation of Anything Goes is a fresh re-imagining of a show that’s already endured plenty of makeovers. Following its original 1934 premiere, there have been three major overhauls to the libretto, originally written by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton and later revised by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Porter’s music, which at times borrowed from his existing catalogue, remained more or less intact throughout, although the ordering of songs and the characters singing them were shuffled around to suit the new plotlines. The most recent rewrite, done in 1987 by Timothy Crouse (Russel’s son) and John Weidman, is the basis for this Roundabout Theatre Company revival.

An ocean liner bound for England and carrying a motley collection of regular folks, near-celebrities, and gangsters provides the perfect catalyst for mistaken identities, sizzling love affairs, and a bit of criminal tomfoolery. That last bit would be courtesy of Moonface Martin (the venerable Fred Applegate) and his mole, Erma (Joyce Chittick, graduating from a chorus role in the Broadway run).

They share deck space with the nouveau poor Mrs. Harcourt and her debutante daughter, Hope (Alex Finke), who’s set to marry Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Edward Staudenmayer) when they dock, thereby restoring the family fortune. Unfortunately, after spending an evening with a chiseled young stockbroker three weeks prior, Hope is hesitant to marry the goofy but well-meaning Brit, who displays an endearing propensity for malapropisms.

Though it’s technically been modernized, the show remains delightfully old-fashioned. With Kathleen Marshall’s expert direction and extraordinary choreography, and a cast that embraces both the silly and the urbane, the production is simply dazzling.

Following in the mammoth footsteps of Ethel Merman, Patti LuPone, and Sutton Foster, Rachel York accepts the challenge and makes the role of evangelist-turned-nightclub singer Reno Sweeney her own. York, a Broadway leading lady who’s no stranger to headlining a show, uses her years of experience to build a performance that happily bobs atop the swells of a crackerjack ensemble.

Balancing York’s brassy wisecracking is a surprisingly heartfelt performance by Erich Bergen as Billy Crocker, the man who just can’t let Hope go. Bergen(who plays the role only through 2/17; Josh Franklin steps in for the remainder of the Dallas engagement) is called upon to don numerous disguises, speak in silly accents, and assume several different personas while evading the ship’s crew as a stowaway. Underneath each feigned character remains the debonair leading man, helping bridge the gap between groan-worthy highjinks and dreamy duets sung with his debutante love.

About those tunes: each of Porter’s songs receives a stellar treatment, whether it’s a gossamer-tinged love song waltzed across Derek McLane’s lovely Art Deco sets or a saucy back-and-forth that shows off Porter’s witty lyrics. But it’s the show’s two big production numbers that prove why this revival deserves its ocean of accolades. The titular Act I closer is a thrilling tap extravaganza, ending on such a high note that you think it surely couldn’t be topped. Then “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” happens near the beginning of Act II, and you realize that Reno Sweeney, along with everyone else associated with this production, has made you a true believer.