“In olden days, a glimse of a stocking was looked on as something shocking, now heaven knows, anything goes!”….the opening lyric line from this Tony-winning best musical revival of the 1934 Broadway classic. Sounds dated, but the show isn’t a relic, as audience cheering is reaching the rafters at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre. The imprint of Cole Porter’s soaring masterful melodies is likened to icing on a sweet confection covering a plot that’s frothy, silly, outrageous, yet clever. Reflect on the title tune, along with “Easy to Love,” “It’s De-Lovely,” “I Get a Kick out Of You,” “You’re The Top,” “Friendship,” and “All Through The Night,” all enshrined in the Great American Songbook.
These are some of the best songs in the Porter canon, flowing so easily into your consciousness as you hum them leaving the theatre. The plot conveys the feeling we’re caught in, and being seduced by, a fast-paced English or French farce. Mismatched characters are locked into improbable but hilarious situations spouting dialogue-filled zingers. The original book was by P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton with contributions by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. The creators were challenged by a tragedy and had to dump a major portion of the script (which involved a ship sinking) when a fire on a cruise ship killed 134 people. For this production, Timothy Crouse, son of Russel, and John Weidman made further revisions. The craziness unfolds on board a luxury cruise ship sailing from New York to London.
Headlining the show in the vessel’s nightclub is Reno Sweeney (the legendary Ethel Merman in the original production). In a walloping display, singer, dancer, actor Rachel York shoots fireworks, solidly playing Reno, the former evangelist who has seen the light and converted to being a popular warbler. She’s a good friend of, and harbors a crush on, Wall Street broker Billy Crocker. The young stockbroker has snuck aboard pretending to be a sailor (and later a gangster) to pursue a lovely debutante. Hope Harcourt, the pretty but timid daughter of a snooty socialite, is enamored with Billy but is engaged to be married to a stiff upper-lip supercilious English lord. Other passengers include Moonface Martin, aka Public Enemy #13, disguised as a minister, along with his dim-witted friend Erma. Reno enlists the two to help hide Billy, who now is being identified as Snake- Eyes Johnson, alias Public Enemy #1.
Meanwhile the ship’s Captain is frantically looking for a few famous names to show off to his celebrity-hungry passengers. It seems even then, like now, the public revered the famous. The plot is in rhythm with the ocean swells. Various characters ebb and flow intertwining with each other in a crazy quilt pattern of superficial entanglements, while singing Porter’s melodies with gusto and dancing with high-steppin’ ferocity. The finale of the first act explodes as the full cast revs up in a nine-minute tap routine of the title tune. And as if that wasn’t enough, act two opens with a blowout staging of “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” a roof-raising, foot stompin’, hand clappin’ gospel extravaganza. Both showstoppers are led by the amazing Rachel York. Her performance is dazzling, making the voyage on this cruise liner particularly pleasurable. York reminds me of those classy, sexy, vampy natural beauties that dominated Hollywood screens and Broadway stages during the 1930s. York is radiant, gaudy goofy, as well as alluring, suggesting the fantasy entertainment was a remedy for the negatively affected population during the hard times of 1930s depression. Kathleen Marshall’s choreography and direction is to be admired.
For the dance by the young lovers, Billy and Hope, Marshall resurrects the simple chemistry of Astaire and Rogers. When they dance cheek to cheek, I detected a yearning, melting elegance that love is a state of grace. There’s an ingénue atmosphere when Billy and Hope are talking, as well as singing, radiating an innocence that stirs the senses. Marshall’s unique theatrical vision allows the large cast to hit their marks with breathless timing, like chess pieces moving with military precision, but in burlesque and vaudeville fashion. In honored farce tradition, the slap-happy characters are baffled, but the audience, savvy to the buffoonery, gets full value for the price of the ticket. Marshall is mindful of this digital era. “Anything Goes” is an old fashioned “moon, June, spoon” musical, but she has gifted us with a time-spanning production. So get on board! What makes this voyage particularly pleasurable is the dazzling performance of Rachel York as the stealyour- heart Reno Sweeney, joined by the scintillating cast who give 100 percent.
You want to just capture the show in a bottle and take it home. Costumes reflecting feminine fashions of the Art Deco years certainly caught the notice of ladies in the audience. Their response was enthusiastic. “Anything Goes,” a presentation of Broadway’s Roundabout Theatre Company and Mirvish Productions, continues at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre through August 25th.
By: Alex Reynolds