Twenty-One Gun Salute for Anything Goes
Review by Carlos Stafford, The Model Critic
The Ghosts of Broadway Past proudly walk the decks of the SS American, as it once again triumphantly sets sail for London in this new revival of Anything Goes at the Stephen Sondheim Theater, New York City. This beguiling tribute to the legendary songwriter, Cole Porter, first presented in the early thirties as “make laugh, give ’em hope” romp, succeeds gloriously.
Consider the names from the past: Ethel Merman, Bing Crosby, Donald O’Connor, Mitzi Gaynor, Frank Sinatra, and more recently in 1987, Patti Lupone, who last performed this musical at the Vivian Beaumont. All these icons performed this piece on stage, screen, or TV, at one time in their careers. Now, their spirits seem to assemble in the front rows, cheering the new crew on for a fresh generation to enjoy. And clearly this production reciprocates: no white flags of surrender are to be seen in any quarter of this production. It pops!
As a period musical piece, this production dazzles. It erases any hint of the museum, with its crisp, ship-shape decks, white-starched sailor outfits, and most of all, with the force and presence of Sutton Foster, as Reno Sweeney; the Pantheon of Past Performers must smile proudly when they witness this old-school talent.
Sutton Foster, shall we say, carries this show easily. She has it all: great looks, a beautiful belt voice, great dance ability and the clear diction of accomplished actor. She, most of all, has an electric energy and sends it “special delivery.” She is happily the link to past great performers, but also brings a modernity that is singular in style. While the song and dance stars from the past had an easy elegance, natural sophistication and ease, she, on the other hand, is about fire, exuberance, and athletic artistry.
On board, we have high society, and low society, haves and have-nots, booze, babes, and bible thumpers. The roster includes Elisha Whitney (John McMartin), a Wall Street financier into easy money, alcohol, and a rah-rah allegiances to Yale. Billy Crocker (Colin Donnell), his assistant, bidding his boss farewell, has been sent to make one final trade before cast off. But before he does, Billy helps Moonface Martin (Joel Grey), Public Enemy #13, disguised as a missionary, and his side kick Erma (Jessica Stone), get past the purser. Billy then sees Hope Harcourt (Laura Osnes) an old flame, boarding, and instead of delivering his boss’s trade, decides to stowaway. Having no passport, Moonface and Erma repay Billy’s help, and give them a passport and ticket of their partner in crime, “Snake Eyes” Johnson, Public Enemy #1, who mistakenly doesn’t board. Now ensconced on board with a sailor’s disguise, Billy is distraught to find Hope with her fiancé, the wealthy, but dry Englishman, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (hilarious, Adam Godley), and Mrs. Evangeline Harcourt (Jessica Walter), Hope’s mother. Reno Sweeney (Sutton Foster), former Evangelist, now night club singer, join the passenger list along with her traveling angels–Purity, Chastity, Charity, and Virtue–(Shina Ann Morris, Kimberly Faure, Jennifer Savelli, and Joyce Chittick, respectively).
Reno and Billy are good friends from the past. Reno thinks a lot of Billy, You’re the Top, but Billy has eyes for Hope. Distraught, a plot is hatched by Moonface and Erma to catch Reno in Lord Evelyn’s stateroom half-naked, thereby creating a hitch in the pending nuptials, leaving the door open for Billy to win Hope. But Lord Evelyn is a naive Magoo, always seeing the positive, prosaic side of life, and doesn’t fall for the scam. When Moonface breaks into the room, machine gun in hand to bust him with the complying Reno, Lord Evelyn finds it delightful that anyone would consider him to be a passionate lover, especially if his future wife heard about it. While Reno is engaged in stateroom, Billy discovers Hope on deck, and they have a romantic turn at twilight, It’s de Lovely. We learn that Hope loves Billy, but she must marry Lord Evelyn because her mother has been ruined by her husband’s financial losses and his recent suicide, and needs financial security. (Note: all the books are written differently in terms of plot structures and songs covered.) Then Reno reveals to Billy that Lord Evelyn has kissed her! And as the farce deepens, the passengers, sailors, and crew, all gather at the rosy fingers of dawn, and blow the smokestacks hard with the rousing and joyous, song and dance number, Anything Goes. (At intermission, people struggle not to annoy their neighbor by humming the tune.)
A cable arrives saying Public Enemy #1 is on board. Billy is outed! Having no real celebrities on board, the passengers celebrate Billy as a star. Moonface, as the preacher, tells everyone he is reforming Billy, and Reno sings Blow, Gabriel, Blow. All confess their sins in a revival in the nightclub. Lord Evelyn confesses to having an affair with a Chinese girl, Plum Blossom, long ago. Meanwhile, Hope is not impressed with Billy’s charade, and he is forced to admit that he is not Public Enemy #1. Moonface, in sympathy, comes clean, and confesses that he is not a preacher either, but only Public Enemy #13. They are both taken to the brig.
On deck that same night, Lord Oakley and Reno have their moment together as he breaks loose and declares his true, wild nature, in the zaniest moment of the show, The Gypsy in Me. Below deck, in the brig, Moonface and Billy play strip poker with two Chinese cell mates, win, and don their clothes, and escape to the upper decks. There, they confront Lord Oakley, saying they are the parents of Plum Blossom, and extort money from him for their silence. Hope declares her love for Billy, Lord Oakley for Reno, and Hope’s mother realizes that her firm is really worth millions; Elisha Whitney, always looking for a deal, decides to buy it all for millions. All imposters are exonerated.
Again, Sutton Foster is the real deal, and delivers first class energy in her performance. With the looming ocean liner, (and occasional sea gulls), the stage, at times, seems overly crowded to contain the big production numbers. But the cast seems to survive well without kicking each other’s teeth out; it would be great to see this production on a bigger stage to get the full effect of the dance. Also, Sutton could flirt a little more in her numbers, bring out the temptress. Men would surely enjoy it more and maybe some woman too. But let’s not quibble, Sybil, she’s busy enough.
But finally, the real star of the show is the music; who would argue with these tunes, so many, part of aural history of the American Songbook. Cole Porter, hats off to you! However, the choreography, by Kathleen Marshall, was mixed to my mind. Many times it was tone
d-down and simple. Probably because musicals, like Anything Goes, and performers like Shirley McClain, Chita Riviera, Gwen Verdon, and Mitzi Gaynor, for example, who could sing, dance, and act well–aren’t in demand today. Now, you have a singer who can’t dance; a dancer who doesn’t act, etc. The choreography reflected this in places, but overall, it worked well. Good artistry prevailed. Adam Godley was perfect in his
role as dour, stiff, and removed at first, then transforming into the real, inner stud. It was ridiculously fun comedy. Lastly, it was a pleasure to see the presence of Joel Grey return to the stage. A legend of his stature brings power and charm to a production already filled with talented performers with long resumes. It was all good alchemy, and a fine and fitting tribute to all the titans of Broadway.