High spirits on the high seas
by Richard Dodds
Sometimes it's the right show at the right time, and in the case of Anything Goes at the Golden Gate Theatre, the right production. While it is an uncertain barometer to interpret a single audience's reaction to a show, especially an opening-night audience, the bright, bawdy, tuneful, artfully foolish, and high-adrenaline antics of this 1934 musical seemed a mood enhancer made to order for this moment in time.
When New York's Roundabout Theatre, a high-end nonprofit institution, announced an Anything Goes revival for a 2011 Broadway production, there may have been a why-bother reaction from some (well, from me, at least). But what's on view in the touring production at the Golden Gate quickly stripped away that doubting attitude. With the rock-the-house first-act production number of the title song and the second-act opener of a can-you-top-this "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," you too will probably be ready to preach the gospel according to Reno Sweeney.
One answer to the "why bother?" posited above was likely to provide a vehicle for Sutton Foster, Broadway's current "it" girl, who received raves for her triple-threat performance as evangelist-turned-naughty chanteuse Reno Sweeney. Having seen Foster in The Drowsy Chaperone and Thoroughly Modern Millie, I easily accept the acclaim she garnered in Anything Goes. I have also seen Rachel York, the tour's Reno Sweeney, in several Broadway musicals, but this is the first time I have seen her have the chance to blow the roof off. And she does, she does.
Reno Sweeney is the role created by and for Ethel Merman in a musical that was pretty much a makeshift affair. The original libretto by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton was radically revamped by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse shortly before the musical's opening because a recent ship disaster had rendered the original shipwreck plot distasteful – or because, according to other sources, the show was a mess.
What remained a constant, however, were Cole Porter's songs that remain treasures today. They don't always make perfect sense in their placement in the plot, not unusual for the era, and there was more rearranging for a 1987 Lincoln Center revival (new book by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman) on which this production is based. Who wrote which jokes – both corny and clever – only a dedicated theater historian can say, but they work well in the endearingly knuckleheaded plot.
It's still your basic shipboard boy-meets-girl, nobleman-meets-showgirl, tycoon-meets-dowager, and gangster-meets-floozy plot. This tour has been keenly cast, especially in the character roles, and now in their fourth month on the road, the performers remain in crisp form. Fred Applegate is a lovable rogue as Public Enemy #13, Dennis Kelly is a delightfully befuddled millionaire, Sandra Shipley does dowager with amusing fillips, and Joyce Chittick finds fresh ways to play an archetypical gangster's moll. Erich Bergen plays the young romantic lead Billy Crocker with a bit of tongue-in-cheek hamminess that enhances the role of the upstart stowaway, while Alex Finke is sweet but a bit bland as the debutante of his dreams.
Photo: Joan Marcus
Also stars of the production are the dancing ensemble, with York's Reno Sweeney as its nuclear core, which powers away through a dictionary of dance moves created by director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall. Marshall also has keenly guided her stars in ways that make Porter's most familiar songs sound fresh, as in the way York and Bergen seem to be inventing the lyrics of "You're the Top" on the spot. The show does list a bit in the second act, after the splash of "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," with some novelty tunes and second-tier Porter filling out the production before a knock-your-socks-off finale sets everything aright.
A final note about the charged opening-night response, which even seemed to take some of the cast by surprise: As the cheers roared forth at the conclusion of "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," York held up her arms in triumph, a theater veteran visibly soaking in the response beyond any expected staged pause for applause. It was the look on the faces of the entire cast behind her that was evidence that this moving moment was genuine.
Anything Goes will run at the Golden Gate Theatre through Feb. 3. Tickets are $40-$200. Call (888) 746-1799 or go to www.shnsf.com.