Who needs a brass section when you’ve got Sutton Foster? As the nightclub evangelist Reno Sweeney in the zesty new revival of “Anything Goes,” which opened on Thursday night at the Stephen Sondheim Theater, Ms. Foster has the voice of a trumpet and a big, gleaming presence that floods the house. When she leads the show-stopping “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” you figure that if no horn-tooting archangel appears, it’s only because he’s afraid of the competition.
Ms. Foster is playing a part originated by the all-time musical-comedy queen of brass, Ethel Merman, who was said to be the heart and soul (as well as lungs) of “Anything Goes” when it opened on Broadway in 1934. Certainly that is the role served to the brimming point by Ms. Foster in Kathleen Marshall’s production of this willfully silly tale of love, deception and celebrity-chasing on the high seas, which features a deluxe candy box of songs by Cole Porter.
Both goofy and sexy, shruggingly insouciant and rigorously polished, Ms. Foster’s performance embodies the essence of escapist entertainment in the 1930s, when hard times called for bold smiles, tough wisecracks and defiant fantasies of over-the-top opulence. That’s the tone that Ms. Marshall is going for in this Roundabout Theater Company production. And to achieve it she’s enlisted a team that includes Derek McLane (for the bright Deco sets), Martin Pakledinaz (for the matching sassy costumes) and the peerless Rob Fisher (for the musical supervision and vocal arrangements).
No revisionist shadows for this version of the show that gave us the immortal standards “You’re the Top,” “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “Anything Goes,” among others. Ms. Marshall and her singing dancers and comic actors — a motley crew that includes Joel Grey, Jessica Walter, Adam Godley and John McMartin — are here not to make sense of the world but to help us forget it for a couple of hours. (Think of it as an alternative for folks who aren’t ready for the foulmouthed “Book of Mormon.”)
So be willing to suspend your need for logic and your intolerance for groaning jokes. There’s a reason this musical is called “Anything Goes.” It’s a farrago of zinger-stocked dialogue, vaudeville-style antics and musical numbers only pretending to co-exist as a coherent plot.
The vicissitudes the original production underwent included having to jettison a large part of the original script (which involved a shipwreck) after a fire on a cruise ship killed 134 people. The first team of writers, P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, had moved on to other projects, so Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse were brought on, beginning a collaboration that would peak with the long-running “Life With Father.” (The current version features additions and revisions by Timothy Crouse, son of Russel, and John Weidman, who had performed the same function for the 1982 Lincoln Center Theater revival, which starred Patti LuPone.)
Showbiz legend has it that the title came about during chaotic out-of-town rehearsals when the leading man, William Gaxton, was asked if he would object to making an early entrance and replied, “In this kind of a spot, anything goes!” And so it does. If the show could be said to be about anything, it’s about improvising and vamping your way out of a tight corner.
Consider some of the dramatis personae who assemble in New York on the deck of a London-bound luxury liner: Reno Sweeney, the onetime evangelist who has become a naughty nightclub star (imagine Aimee Semple McPherson transformed into Texas Guinan); Moonface Martin (Mr. Grey), a gangster fleeing the law by pretending to be a priest; and Billy Crocker (Colin Donnell) a young stockbroker who winds up pretending to be a sailor (and later a gangster) to pursue a lovely debutante.
That would be Hope Harcourt (Laura Osnes) whose nouveau pauvre mother, Evangeline (Ms. Walter), has betrothed her daughter to the wealthy Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Mr. Godley), in a bid to restore the family fortunes. In the meantime the ship’s Captain (Walter Charles) is desperately looking for a few famous names to parade before his celebrity-hungry passengers. (The first line of the show’s title song is “Times have changed,” but in some ways they obviously haven’t.)
How these mixed nuts collaborate with and fool one another involves much strutting of assorted, sometimes tedious, comic styles. As a nearsighted Wall Street tycoon (and Crocker’s boss), Mr. McMartin, that invaluable Broadway veteran, brings a delicious giddiness to elderly lust and Ivy League juvenility. Playing an English aristo in love with American slang, a very game Mr. Godley (“Private Lives” on Broadway) makes merry with malapropisms. Jessica Stone is a salty treat as a sailor-chasing gangster’s moll. And Mr. Grey does his time-tested combination of music-hall shtick and “little ol’ me” puckishness that became his post-“Cabaret” signature when he appeared in “George M!” 43 years ago.
The jokes and double entendres tend to be of the collegiate variety show ilk. But even when they misfired, I kept grinning because I knew that they were pointing the way to yet another knockout production number. For that is where this revival comes into its glory.
Ms. Marshall, whose career as a director-cum-choreographer has included sky-scraping highs (“The Pajama Game”) and bottom-scraping lows (“Grease”), is on top again here. She has clearly made a close study of 1930s film musicals and rings diverse variations on styles made famous by Astaire, Hermes Pan and Busby Berkeley. But whereas earlier Broadway evocations of the same period, including “42nd Street” (1980 and 2001) and “Never Gonna Dance” (2003), had a bottled, artificial quality, this “Anything Goes” exudes the effervescence of a freshly poured gin fizz.
For the pas de deux between the young lovers, Billy and Hope, Ms. Marshall reinvents the supple chemistry of Astaire and Rogers. When they’re only talking or even singing, Billy and (especially) Hope are about as exciting as most moony musical ingénues are. But when Mr. Donnell and Ms. Osnes go cheek to cheek, it’s with a yearning, melting elegance that makes you believe in love as a state of grace.
Of course it doesn’t hurt that what they’re dancing to are “Easy to Love” and “It’s De-Lovely.” There’s no underestimating the abiding infectiousness of Porter’s best songs. (You may recall some from other shows; Porter wrote numbers that could fit comfortably into many different productions.)
And when Ms. Marshall turns up the heat for big ensemble interpretations of “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” and “Anything Goes,” watch out. Tapping, shimmying, twirling and writhing, the dancers combine military discipline with white-hot sensuality, and the dopey promise of all those insinuating one-liners is more than fulfilled.
It’s Ms. Foster who leads these numbers, both as a singer and as a dancer. And her triple mastery of words, music and moves is unmatched by any performer on Broadway at the moment. It’s not just that she nails every step, note and joke. It’s the attitude with which she does so — an aw-shucks kind of casualness coupled with a dizzy exhibitionist’s delight.
Her pleasure in her material creates a sheen that illuminates everyone around her. Mr. Donnell, Mr. Grey and Mr. Godley are never better than in their duets with Ms. Foster, energetic competitions in putting over some of Porter’s cleverest lyrics.
Even tapping frenziedly with a chorus line, she seems to be conducting a happy, quippy dialogue with her fellow dancers, an implicit call-and-response between a perfectly in-sync star and a great ensemble. (“Can you top this?” “Oh, yes I can.”) At such moments Ms. Foster’s Reno becomes an evangelist of musical-comedy joy. When she turns her toothy, triumphant smile on the audience there’s no doubt that she’s made many converts.
The new production of the Cole Porter classic "Anything Goes" sailed onto Broadway last night, and it's as cool and intoxicating as a fresh ocean breeze.
Credit two bright talents for such a snazzy, jazzy affair: Sutton Foster, who stars as the saucy singing evangelist Reno Sweeney, and director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall, who's at the helm of this buoyantly dance-happy production.
The Depression-era story takes place on a luxury cruise liner bound to London from New York. The show is at its best when in motion; the book scenes to get soggy.
The action revolves around the misadventures arising from the collision of brassy Reno; a low-rank gangster in disguise; a handsome stowaway who's out-of-his-head and out-of-his-league in love; an unobtainable heiress, and an awkward British lord.
The show was written by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton and Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse in 1934 for Ethel Merman. In 1987, Timothy Crouse and John Weidman updated the book when Patti LuPone starred in the Lincoln Center revival.
Putting her stamp on the oh-so-juicy role of Reno, the Tony-winning Foster ("Thoroughly Modern Millie") lets loose the brassy dame lurking behind her wholesome prettiness. While she's at it, she belts, waltzes, taps, clowns and sizzles, and makes "You're the Top" and "I Get a Kick Out of You" sound delicious.
Leading the joyfully elaborate dance numbers built around the title song and "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," Foster lifts the show and the audience to musical-comedy bliss. Three words: She's the top.
Her castmates are right with her. As the bewitched Billy, the dashing Colin Donnell is a singing-and-dancing dreamboat who makes "Easy to Love" and "It's De-Lovely" pure de-light.
As Hope, the heiress he loves and sets off bright sparks with, the pure-voiced Laura Osnes ("Grease," "South Pacific") makes her melancholy solo, "Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye," shimmer with poignance. And as Hope's idiom-mangling English fiancé, Lord Evelyn, the wonderfully goofy Adam Godley steals the 11th-hour spotlight in his cheeky tango with Foster.
Joel Grey, who plays Public Enemy No. 13 Moonface Martin, shares star billing with Foster. He's a welcome sight, although he comes up a little short in the laughs department. The Broadway vet shines brightest during the number "Be Like the Bluebird," which has been imagined as a whimsical dance duet that recalls Gene Kelly's pas de deux with Jerry Mouse.
Lending fine support are Jessica Walter, John McMartin and Jessica Stone, as Hope's mother, a Wall Street financier and a libidinous moll.
Wrapped around all the shipboard shenanigans is a swell-looking production. Derek McLane's multilevel ocean liner and snug compartments gleam with Art Deco style; Martin Pakledinaz's costumes are trimmed in sophistication and wit, and Peter Kaczorowski's lighting casts a moonlit glow that literally puts the dancers in the pink.
It's great to see a director coax out the best in a vintage show. Book passage on "Anything Goes," and you'll be traveling first-class.
Sutton Foster is one of the most likable, charismatic personalities on Broadway. She's a genuine musical-theater animal -- but does that make her right for Reno Sweeney, the heart and soul of Cole Porter's "Anything Goes"?
Ethel Merman created the plummy part of the evangelist-turned-nightclub-diva in 1934, and Patti LuPone brought it back to life in 1987. With her fizzy enthusiasm and Girl Scout pluck, Foster doesn't feel quite right for Reno, a jawbreaker candy filled with 100-proof liquor.
And yet . . .
Kathleen Marshall's revival for the Roundabout, which opened on Broadway last night, is like one of those old Hollywood movies with Bette Davis as a frumpy schoolteacher: You don't really buy it, but the star's still fun to watch.
It certainly helps that this tuner is packed with great numbers. With a set list that includes "I Get a Kick Out of You," "You're the Top," "Easy To Love," "It's De-Lovely" and the title song, how bad can it get?
And, unlike Merman and LuPone, Foster can dance, so Marshall, who also choreographed, gave her some serious hoofing. Again, this is foolproof -- nobody's ever complained of too much tap in a musical.
The show's slapdash plot is basic screwball: Eccentric characters are thrown together on an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic; mayhem ensues.
Reno's onboard to provide entertainment, while her old friend with benefits, Billy Crocker (Colin Donnell, handsome and bland), stows away to woo the girl he loves, Hope Harcourt (Laura Osnes). Unfortunately, she's accompanied by her fiancé, the British Lord Evelyn (Adam Godley).
Add a gangster (Joel Grey) and his randy moll (the sassy Jessica Stone), and all's set for merry shenanigans on designer Derek McLane's three-tiered white deck -- a giant, nautical wedding cake.
Marshall struggles with the farcical tempo, and many bits of comic business fall flat. Several involve the ubiquitous, shamelessly mugging Grey -- he's like the uncle who somehow inserts himself in every wedding photo.
Fortunately, some supporting performances sparkle. Osnes, in ravishing voice, is a de-lovely ingenue, all fire and ice, and the gangly Godley is a riot as the hapless aristocrat. He can't really sing, yet his duet with Foster, "The Gypsy in Me," brings down the house.
That's because, as they try to upstage each other, they look as if they're making up the routine as they go along. This is what you get when gifted performers take an innocuous song and run with it: a moment of pure, old-school magic.
Why, one wonders, should Roundabout see fit to trot out "Anything Goes," the frequently produced 1934 musical chestnut? Turns out it has a compelling reason: Sutton Foster. She doesn't just deliver those Cole Porter hits, she knocks 'em out of the park. Joel Grey gives his happiest performance in years as Public Enemy #13, and director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall has a field day, outdoing herself with several rousing dance numbers. This new "Anything Goes" is a daffy, shipshape romp.
Foster has a reputation as one of Broadway's hardest working musical comedy stars, with a clenched-in-determination jaw all too frequently visible. But as Reno Sweeney, the evangelist-turned-nightclub singer, Foster's smooth performance is smart, sassy and blithely engaging. She seems to be having a whale of a time.
Grey -- who turns 79 on Monday, and is simultaneously directing the upcoming Broadway staging of play "The Normal Heart" -- is in fine form. He gives the hapless gangster Moonface Martin a Chaplinesque spin, although his blank expression is closer to that of Chaplin-competitor Harry Langdon. Show chugs along well enough until Grey and Foster break things open with "Friendship," demonstrating just what big-league musical comedy clowning should be.
Occupying the third point of the star triangle is newcomer Colin Donnell, who makes an impressive showing but doesn't have the necessary presence to steal the stage from the two Tony winners hogging the spotlight. Veteran scene-stealer John McMartin takes up some of the slack as a doddering old Yale man, Jessica Walter similarly chews the scenery as the character comedienne and Jessica Stone scores as a sailor-happy moll.
Surprise of the evening comes from British comedian Adam Godley, last here as the stuffy husband to Lindsay Duncan in 2002's "Private Lives." When the second act starts to bog down, Godley -- as Lord Evelyn Oakleigh -- commandeers matters with "The Gypsy in Me." Godley dances with Foster so extravagantly he turns a throwaway number into a rousing high-point with extended (and very funny) dance variations.
Marshall, who staged the revivals of "Wonderful Town" and the Harry Connick Jr. "Pajama Game," does an especially fine job here. She deftly handles the vintage corn of the book while conjuring joyous routines for Foster and a fine dance corps (especially in the title song and "Blow Gabriel, Blow"). Derek McLane's sets, while not lavish, are functional and amusing, Martin Pakledinaz provides colorfully humorous costumes and the music department, under the supervision of Rob Fisher, makes Porter sparkle.
The Roundabout uses the playing version created in 1987 for Lincoln Center Theater (which receives title-page billing here). The well-remembered LCT staging was sleekly stylish and stunningly sophisticated; this one is less so, but -- thanks in great part to Foster and Marshall -- it's funnier, giddier and more lovable.