Anything Goes has always been a huge star vehicle for its female lead role, the sassy, sexy Reno Sweeney. The role was originally played by the great Ethel Merman on Broadway back in 1934, Patty LuPone in 1987, and by Sutton Foster in the Tony-winning 2011 Broadway revival, the production that just opened (sans Foster) at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre as part of a national tour. Reno gets the best songs in the show: From the opening ”I Get a Kick Out of You” to ”You’re the Top,” these are classic Cole Porter tunes that were mastered not only by the Broadway greats, but also by jazz singers from Ella Fitzgerald to Jamie Cullum. Those are big shoes to fill, so you’d better pray the touring production has a star who can hold her own.
Fortunately, Rachel York holds her own and then some. Her mile-long legs and brassy, big voice take over the stage, but still make room for the charming ensemble cast. She also melds gracefully into the big dance numbers that make director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall’s revival so memorable. Reno is an evangelist-turned-nightclub owner, whose show is set to perform on board a ship bound for London. Joining Reno is a madcap cast of characters: a gangster (Moonface Martin, played by Broadway vet Fred Applegate), Reno’s on-again-off-again flirtation, Billy Crocker (Erich Bergen), Billy’s Yale-educated boss, Elisha Whitney (Dennis Kelly), Crocker’s forbidden love, Hope Harcourt (Alex Finke) and Hope’s fiancé, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Edward Staudenmeyer). Applegate stands out as the bumbling Moonface, a perfect accompaniment to York’s ball-busting style, while Joyce Chittick, as his sidekick Erma, shines in her solo number, ”Buddy Beware.”
Anything Goes’ title track starts off with the phrase ”times have changed,” which may have served as commentary on post-Depression society in Cole Porter’s day. But this production hints that well, not much really has changed. When Billy gets mistaken for a famous gangster and becomes the biggest celebrity on the ship, the plot twist seems familiar in a world of celebrity arrests and being famous for being famous. Porter’s incessant wordplay is quick-witted and infectious; in ”You’re the Top,” York and Bergen outdo each other with a lyrical back-and-forth that still seems fresh: ”You’re the top/You’re Mahatma Ghandi/You’re the top/You’re Napoleon Brandy.”
But the real star in this show is Marshall’s crisp choreography. Clean lines, sharp taps, and an old school aesthetic make Anything Goes look and feel like the big show that it is. The modest chorus of dancers make the ensemble numbers look bigger than they are. They work nimbly around the static ship set, playing to all parts of the house from elevated decks. EW critic Lisa Schwartzbaum wrote of the 2011 Broadway version that the ”gleaming, grown-up, witty, doodad-free production values of the show itself form their own deeply satisfying salute to the best traditions of Broadway.” I couldn’t agree more. A
(Tickets and tour info: www.anythinggoesontour.com)