I remember reading a biography of one of the great British actors — Laurence Olivier, I think it was. He had been doing a tour of this country. He took back to England something that wasn’t immediately available there, something that his friends back home were wildly eager to have the chance to hear: recordings from the original production of Anything Goes.
The then-new songs by Cole Porter were the top. They were the Nile. They were the tower of Pisa. They were the smile on the Mona Lisa. And they were delivered by the bright new Broadway star Ethel Merman.
A non-Equity tour based on the most recent Broadway revival of this classic show swung through town this week for two nights only at the Warner Theatre. The Roundabout Theatre Company production, which in New York starred Sutton Foster (in her second Tony-winning performance) and Joel Grey, was directed and choreographed by the reliable, often inspired Kathleen Marshall.
The decades have not been kind to Anything Goes. If the score is firmly ensconced in what they call The Great American Songbook, the script is remarkably lame. They don’t make them like that anymore is frequently said about Broadway musicals, and, in this case, you can say, thank God they don’t.
This despite having six (!) writers credited with the book, beginning with the redoubtable P.G. Wodehouse, of Wooster and Jeeves fame, and his frequent theatrical collaborator Guy Bolton. Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse, the team who wrote the longest-running straight play in Broadway history Life with Father and the book for The Sound of Music, took it from there. For the Patti LuPone revival in the 80s, John Weidman (Pacific Overtures, Assassins) reworked the script, and, for this iteration, Russel Crouse’s son Timothy elaborated on that.
The result of all this effort is a plot and dialogue that are about as instantly forgettable as your average episode of The Love Boat, and not just because the story is about romance and disguise on a trans-Atlantic crossing. The theme (if it even rises to the level of something that could be called a theme) of obsession with celebrity may feel current, but the hoary Asian stereotypes certainly do not.
Another Kathleen Marshall show (Nice Work If You Can Get It, a “new” musical that employed 30s tunes) came through town last month. Funny that the ersatz Gershwin show was so much more satisfying than the (more or less) authentic Porter show.
So you pretty much hang in there for the music, and the music is, of course, de-lovely. The hits include Porter songs, like “Friendship,” that weren’t in the original or, like “Easy to Love,” that were cut from it, along with the many Porter hits the show introduced. And, if the dialogue doesn’t sparkle, it would be hard for any script to match those scintillating Porter lyrics.
Maybe because it’s been longer since the Broadway production on which this tour is based, or maybe because this show has less dance, the Nice Work… tour seemed to retain more of the Marshall magic. The first act is heavy on love songs and ballads and came most alive during the Astaire and Rogers-like dancing on “Easy to Love” and “It’s De-lovely.” The act ends with the title song, which was fun, but didn’t send you out into the intermission feeling ecstatic.
The second act is when the big dance numbers arrive and when the show hits its stride. “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” made a big impression and announced the full arrival of the Marshall magic. My favorite song of the night was “Buddie, Beware,” during which Mychal Phillips, as the obligatory gangster’s moll, and the chorus of sailors stop the show. In fact, the work of the chorus (and the fact that it included dancers of various heights) was a highlight. Sailor hats off not only to Marshall, but to Sean McKnight and Jennifer Savelli, who here “re-create” her work — and to Dance Captain Katie Wilson Stewart and her assistant Bradley Allan Zarr.
Another show-stopper was “The Gypsy in Me,” during which the stuffy Brit, played by the terrific Richard Lindenfelzer, lets down his hair. Rachelle Rose Clark as Hope, the ingenue, sang and danced just beautifully, and was another high spot.
The show’s leads had big shoes to fill, and it would be easy to hold them unfairly to an impossibly high standard, but I nevertheless found them less satisfying than the supporting actors mentioned above. Emma Stratton as Reno Sweeney (a part so iconic they named a nightclub after her) holds her own in the musical numbers — she has a great voice — but she is strangely laid-back during her scenes, and you don’t think about her when she is off stage. Brian Krinsky, the leading man, dances wonderfully, but was difficult to hear during some of his songs, which is a shame, given the level of the lyrics, and a surprise, given how over-mic’d others in the cast seemed. Dennis Setteducati as the gangster was abrasively two-dimensional throughout, but nailed his solo number, “Be Like the Blue Bird.”
The sets by the wonderful Derek McLane have been adapted for the tour impressively by one of D.C.’s busiest and most-honored set designers, James Kronzer. Robbie Cowan led an impressive band that was given latitude occasionally to get playful with the incidental music.
“In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking,
But Heaven knows,
Maybe the fizz has evaporated a bit from the champagne that Reno gets no kick from over the eighty years since Porter popped the cork, but his contribution to the endeavor is still…
“The purple light of a summer night in Spain.
It’s the National Gallery.
It’s Garbo’s salary.
The national tour of Anything Goes played the Warner Theatre, February 25 and 26, 2015.
[The critic knew and worked with James Kronzer during the 1990s. He wasn’t aware of his friend’s involvement in the production when accepting the assignment.]