Forget the bloody Andrew Jackson and those American idiots. The freshest show in town brings a devil-may-care attitude to group sex, cocaine, drinking to excess and any and all other taboos. Oh yeah: It’s also 77 years old.
When I reluctantly agreed to review the Roundabout’s revival of Anything Goes, I was approaching it with dread. What, this old thing yet again? With that terrible, nonsensical, dated book? And those songs I’ve heard at least a million times?
Dumb Steve. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
Director-choreographer, aided by a crackerjack creative team and an absolutely down-the-line terrific cast, have taken one of the most familiar works in American theater and completely reinvented it.
It starts, as all musicals do, with the book and music. Two writers have taken the book (which I always hated) and basically rewritten it. While keeping in the bones of the plot and the best lines, they have given what was once a horribly dated script a shine and sparkle as bright as the drop-dead gorgeous evening gowns that just keep coming on all of the featured actresses. (That one of the writers, Timothy Crouse, is the son of one of the original ones, Russel, gives it a nice sense of continuity.)
Then there’s the music. Everyone knows at least eight of the songs in this score. They’re not standards. They’re anthems. Completely new orchestrations have cleaned up the music lines so that Cole Porter’s diamond-sharp lyrics can be heard to full advantage.
And those costumes! The gowns billow and wave at the slightest stir of air. When the actresses dance, the clothes become as integral to the choreography as feet. Marshall’s choreography is refreshingly her own. What a joy to see a show that isn’t faux-Fosse, faux-Robbins, faux-Champion or faux anything but itself!
The cast is uniformly excellent, down the line, starting with Sutton Foster, who has the formidable task of recreating Reno Sweeney, the role that gave Ethel Merman stardom. Foster wisely doesn’t try to out-shout the Merm; instead, she inflects every line with a cunning knowingness that’s sometimes wiseacre, sometimes wistful, but always meaningful.
This is the show that puts to rest any doubt that Foster has become one of the leading lights of Broadway, a worthy successor not only to Merman but everyone from Mary Martin to Patti Lupone, Her slinky body is perfectly suited to tap, ballroom and flamenco, while her rubbery face is the perfect vehicle for musical-comedy mugging.
As Billy Crocker, the lovesick stockbroker stowaway, Colin Donnell sings and dances like a dream. If Laura Osnes, as his love interest Hope, shines a little less brightly, it’s more because of the relative flatness of the role than her own luminous voice and Ginger Rogers-like slinky dance moves.
Joel Gray does a great comic turn as the bumbling gangster Moonface Martin. As his reluctant moll Erma, who has a thing for sailors, Jessica Stone nearly steals every scene she’s in. The cast is topped off by stage veterans John McMartin and Jessica Walter with great comic turns, proving that you can indeed be older but no wiser.
There are simply not enough good things to say about this production, which is as finely etched and honed as a diamond. The big Act One closer, Anything Goes, gets the full-out Broadway treatment, with dozens of sailors, passengers and everyone else tapping their hearts out. The big Act Two number, Blow, Gabriel, Blow, is just as embracing, with male cast members’ formal tails flying around the stage.
I keep hearing complaints that Broadway has become a museum, a waxworks of tried-and-true revivals -- and I’ve joined in that chorus. But seeing how new eyes and ears can take a work as hoary and dated as this one and to so totally reinvent it made me realize that it’s not the familiarity of the age or the provenance of a Broadway show that matters. It’s what’s done with it.
What’s more, this reworking had me once again appreciating Cole Porter’s genius with a line. His ultra-sophistication and soignée acceptance of the pleasant vices that occupy our nights hasn’t dated one bit. In fact, next to lines like "Some get a kick from cocaine/I’m sure that if I took even one whiff/That would bore me terrifically too" only serve up how grim, prudish and out-of-it supposedly with-it shows like Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson and American Idiot are.
Not that there isn’t some social commentary in here. There’s a very nice subplot straight out of Chicago about the penchant for making celebrities out of hoodlums during the ’20s and ’30s. And amidst all the gowns and tuxedos, there’s a lot of criticism of the pecking order. But it’s cleverly inserted amidst the elegance -- not thrown at you with the subtlety of yesterday’s bathwater.
If you still insist that you don’t think you can enjoy a musical first produced in 1934, there’s not much more I can say to persuade you. But if you’re smart and lucky enough to score a ticket, you’ll understand how embracing and fulfilling a really great Broadway show can be.