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Broadway Reviews

Anything Goes

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 7, 2011

Anything Goes Music & lyrics by Cole Porter. Original book by P.G. Wodehouse & Guy Bolton and Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse. New book by Timothy Crouse & John Weidman. Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall. Music Supervisor/Vocal Arranger Rob Fisher. Set design by Derek McLane. Costume design by Martin Pakledinaz. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Sound design by Brian Ronan. Additional orchestrations by Bill Elliott. Original orchestrations by Michael Gibson. Hair & wig design by Paul Huntley. Makeup design by Angelina Avallone. Cast: Sutton Foster and Joel Grey, with Colin Donnell, Adam Godley, Laura Osnes, Jessica Stone, Walter Charles, Robert Creighton, Andrew Cao, Raymond J. Lee, Clyde Alves, Ward Billeisen, Joyce Chittick, Nikki Renée Daniels, Margot De La Barre, Daniel J. Edwards, Kimberly Fauré, Josh Franklin, Justin Greer, Tari Kelly, Shina Ann Morris, Linda Mugleston, Kevin Munhall, Adam Perry, William Ryall, Jennifer Savelli, Anthony Wayne, Kristen Beth Williams, with John McMartin and Jessica Walter.
Theatre: Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 West 43 Street between Broadway and 6 Avenue
Schedule: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 pm, Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2 pm.
Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes, with one intermission
Ticket prices: $87 - $142
Tickets: Telecharge

Joel Grey and Sutton Foster
Photo by Joan Marcus.

It's surpassingly fortunate for all involved in the new Roundabout Theatre Company production of Anything Goes at the Stephen Sondheim—first and foremost, the audience—that there is so much music. This is not merely because the Cole Porter songs, the vast majority of them ironclad miracles of composition, are as luscious as American music gets, though that's certainly the case. Porter, one of the most undulating and daring tunesmiths, and lyrical dynamos, ever to grace Broadway, captures the saucy capriciousness of sophistication in a way few others have before or since, and such talent never goes out of style. But you appreciate Porter's artistry all the more because of how little is evident elsewhere whenever the songs recede.

Certainly when Anything Goes premiered in 1934, the score—as put over by the irrepressible, irreplaceable likes of Ethel Merman, William Gaxton, and Victor Moore—was king. But the libretto, originally written by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse and revised by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, must have had some piercing impact of its own, as it led New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson to praise it as a “rag, tag and bobtail of comic situations” and declare its “humor is completely unhackneyed.” As further revised and rewritten for the 1987 Lincoln Center Theater revival (substantially the version used here) by Timothy Crouse (Russel's son) and John Weidman, the show now seems determined to re-hackney the humor and return supremacy to Porter alone.

He can handle it—any songwriter who could pen “I Get a Kick of You,” “All Through the Night,” “You're the Top,” the title song, and “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” let alone all for one show (the song stack has, of course, been filled out with Porter classics from elsewhere), is up to any challenge. But the mere mortals involved, from director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall on down, are not as lucky, and at the mercy of the new book more interested in the flighty flailings of the pre-Oklahoma! era than in the supposed standards of today.

The story is little more than a piffle: some nonsense about gangsters, illicit lovers (one of whom is mistaken for a gangster), and a nightclub soul-saver named Reno Sweeney, all ripping apart the social fabric of a London-bound ocean liner for two and a half hours. It's best not to dwell on what happens or how: It's all a flimsy excuse to tour the Porter museum, the original ideas perhaps buffed up the original for modern sensibilities but not actually improved upon in terms of drama—or even necessarily drama at all.

Though the pleasures of this Anything Goes may be numerable, even aside from the score, they don't represent particularly satisfying showmaking beyond the most visceral world of legs and laffs. Standing astride both categories is Sutton Foster, whose not-so-coy first-scene revealing of her own statuesque gams at the performance I attended elicited audible (and justified) gasps, and who as Reno Sweeney plows through a waist-high wasteland of one-liners with a tenacity that would make Merman proud. Additional star wattage is generated by preternatural song-and-dance man Joel Grey, as the jittery “Public Enemy Number 13” Moonface Martin. The young love is supplied by Colin Donnell and Laura Osnes as Billy Crocker and Hope Harcourt, the prototypical pretty couple that sings, well, prettily. There's even the token English stiff, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Adam Godley).

Sutton Foster and the company
Photo by Joan Marcus.

All these folks cavort, joke, and romance their way about the S.S. American, designed by Derek McLane as an Art Deco conglomeration of silvery staterooms and smokestacks, dodging the expected confusions—Billy is in cahoots with Moonface! Reno is in love with Billy! Hope's mother (a martini-dry Jessica Walter) is intent on an arranged marriage for her daughter!—and singing the expected, rousing ditties. The hope is certainly that, with a sufficiently fun cast, wearing rampantly glittery costumes (by Martin Pakledinaz, working in full-on elegant-kitsch mode) and lit by Peter Kaczorowski, all of this will be enough to fill out two and a half hours.

On some level it is—this formula always works as long as you don't ponder it too much. But to fully escape the book's cobwebs, each individual element must be above reproach, and that's not quite the case here. Take Foster, for example: The brash and likeable Tony-winning star of Thoroughly Modern Mille and more recently Young Frankenstein and Shrek is keen triple-threat casting, but she doesn't entirely convince as the hard-as-nails after-hours evangelical, and her voice is more a blazing bugle than the gold-plated foghorns of Merman or Patti LuPone (who recreated Reno in the LCT revival). She excites on a technical level, especially when leading the frenzied, tap-drenched Act I finale or the steamy revival meeting just after intermission, but can't send the thrills much deeper than that.

Laura Osnes and Colin Donnell
Photo by Joan Marcus.

It's also unfortunate that Grey's entire idea of comedy is here encapsulated in a bulging-eyed grin but no palpable wackiness, or definable detail—Moonface should be a little threatening, or at least unpredictable, and Grey is too busy being good-natured to be either. Donnell brings a cool detachment to his matinee-idol character that interferes with the simmering hormones that drive the story; Osnes, gorgeous and smoky, but a little sweet, better embodies the style. Godley plays Evelyn as far too realistic to be funny, and John McMartin isn't doddering enough to sell the role of Billy's stock-broker boss. Only Jessica Stone and Robert Creighton, respectively playing Moonface's moll, Erma, and the ship's vacant purser, find the proper blend of tipsy comedy and elevated attitude.

A more innovative force at the helm might help. As a director, Marshall works largely on the surface—the 2007 revival of Grease and Roundabout's own 2006 zombification of The Pajama Game were, at best, animated comic books—so the complexities of character and humor that might grant the show some additional shading are nowhere to be found. And her dances are more notable for their protracted length than for any original choreographic ideas they contain; it's to her credit she can keep the interest going, but even the biggest numbers tend to feel like they're struggling big-time. Even a show with as little on its mind as this one should be about marginally more than getting from one gag or kick-ball-change to the next, especially when a bit of breathing room would make it easier to keep the energy up.

Luckily, every instance of Porter rouses the show out of its torpor, reminding you that scintillating lyrics and music can deliver a kick bigger than champagne, and more impressive than “the nimble tread of the feet of Fred Astaire.” Whenever a new (old) tune appears, it delights with not just its wit and its spunk, but also its timelessness—these have survived as much as 77 years, and there's no reason to believe they won't endure for at least 177 more. That's why this Anything Goes disappoints with how often the rest of it is rooted in the flimsiest kind of musical theatre we've spent much of the last eight decades trying to escape.

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