nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 13, 2011
Judging from the rapturous reception given the new revival of Anything Goes at the performance I attended yesterday afternoon, I'd say that audiences are completely ready to forget their troubles and enjoy two-and-a-half hours of blissful, sweet-natured, tuneful musical comedy. Only a curmudgeon would complain that the source of all this rapture was the slightest of pastiches, sporting a 24-year-old book and a mostly 77-year-old score. But wouldn't it be nice to see something a little more contemporary than a show featuring an offensive running gag involving two "Chinamen," a major plot point involving a celebrated John Dillinger-style gangster, and an overall ambience accessible to actors and audiences only via the nostalgic glow of old movies? Not to mention not having to pretend to understand a lyric like
You're a prize
You're a night at Coney
You're the eyes
Of Irene Bordoni
(Come on: how many today know what was so special about Irene Bordoni's eyes? The New York Times has published an online slide show to explain Porter's jokes in that song to their readers, for crying out loud!)
Sigh. I guess we should be reasonably cheered that Roundabout's rendition of Anything Goes is here to lift the spirits of a recession-weary populace. I can't say honestly that I liked it very much, but I'd be remiss not to report that the enthusiasm all around me in the Stephen Sondheim Theatre felt genuine and earned.
Certainly there's no denying the quality of the score. This production, using the same jokey book as the 1987 Lincoln Center Theater revival (by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman) grafts a number of Cole Porter standards onto the best songs from the original 1934 Anything Goes, with the result that just about every song you hear is a crackerjack hit. Sutton Foster, as evangelist/chanteuse Reno Sweeney, gets the core quartet of "I Get a Kick Out of You," "Blow Gabriel Blow," "You're the Top" (with Colin Donnell), and the title song. Second-billed Joel Grey, as a hapless gangster named Moonface Martin, shares a duet with Foster, "Friendship" (from DuBarry Was a Lady, 1939), and also sings the silly novelty number "Be Like the Bluebird." Donnell, who plays Billy Crocker, a young Wall Street stockbroker in love with a famous debutante, and also an old pal of Reno's, sings "Easy to Love" (from the 1936 film Rosalie), and shares duets of "All Through the Night" and "It's De-Lovely" (the latter from Red, Hot, and Blue, 1936) with Laura Osnes, who plays the debutante, Hope Harcourt. And Jessica Stone, as Moonface's moll Erma, gets the 11 o'clock song, the rousing "Buddie Beware." That's nine terrific tunes, presented beautifully by music director James Lowe and a 15-member orchestra.
Roundabout has not stinted on the production budget, providing a lush, stage-filling set by Derek McLane that depicts various cabins and decks on the ocean liner on which all but the first scene takes place; lots and lots of costumes by Martin Pakledinaz that almost always flatter their wearers (Grey and Foster sport a few clunkers, however); and appropriate lighting by Peter Kaczorowski. It's a colorful, merry melange to match Porter's zesty melodies and zingy lyrics.
Director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall doesn't quite capture the period and seems to be driving her dancers to the point of exhaustion in at least a couple of the big numbers (so much so that Foster's shifting facial expressions, as she struggled gamely to keep that Ann Miller smile pasted on her face while she tap-tap-tapped all over the place, were kind of painful to watch). But Marshall is erring on the side of generosity to the audience; I guess that counts for something.
Foster is earnest and lovable as ever, but she doesn't seem to have found Reno Sweeney's character yet. Sometimes she's a precision dance machine a la Eleanor Powell, sometimes she's belting out songs originated by Ethel Merman with a big voice to rival the master, sometimes she's a Cyd Charisse-styled sexpot, all legs and long lines. What she's not, unfortunately, is Sutton Foster, who is the star we've come to see: she needs to have more confidence in her own persona and rely on it the way that, say, Patti LuPone relied on hers back in the '87 revival.
Grey, a treat to see, is miscast as Moonface, who is a sweet-tempered, bumbling, clownish fellow; Grey delivers pathos and does some grand spry hoofing in places, but the gags that comprise most of this character's role aren't at all what he does best. Stone disappoints as Erma; and Donnell, who though fifth-billed is the play's protagonist and leading man, has a pleasant voice but neither the dancer's grace nor the outsized personality that this role calls for. Adam Godley, as an awkward British nobleman (the kind of role actors like Terry-Thomas and, more recently, Hugh Laurie can pull off effortlessly), underwhelms, especially in "The Gypsy in Me," which has always been a comic highlight in every production of Anything Goes I've seen before this one.
Laura Osnes, on the other hand, feels exactly right as Hope, and sings her songs beautifully.
(Note that Jessica Walter, who plays the debutante's mother, was out of the cast for the performance reviewed; I'd been looking forward to seeing her, too.)
Saving the best for last: John McMartin delivers a thoroughly delightful performance as over-the-hill, insanely wealthy, alcoholic businessman Elisha Whitney. He makes the roles' cliches fresh and funny, with a clowning turn that brought to mind, at different times, the elitist buffoonery of Rudy Vallee and the befuddled foolishness of Joe E. Brown. McMartin, one of our theatre's treasures at this point, truly gets what Anything Goes is, and for that he stands out among a company of hard-working, well-meaning, but mostly not-quite-there professionals.
Which brings me right back where I started. I am sure that Sutton Foster and Kathleen Marshall and all the rest of the folks involved with this production could do some truly amazing work on something crafted by their contemporaries that spoke directly to their sensibilities. Marshall, a Broadway veteran of several decades' standing by now, has directed exactly zero original Broadway musicals. About 18 musicals opened on Broadway during the 1934-35 season, when Anything Goes debuted; not one of them was a revival, let alone a revival of a show from 1857. As the song says, times have changed. Our musicals need to, also.