Cole Porter's 'Anything Goes': Nonstop fun at the Kennedy Center

Roundabout Theatre Company's roadshow production is perfect summer fun. Photo: Joan Marcus/w. Sutton Foster as Reno

WASHINGTON, June 17, 2013 – We were visited by out-of-town friends last week, and, after spending a few days touring the Virginia Piedmont, we all returned to the DC area looking for something fun to do. Just like any red-blooded performing arts critic, yours truly suggested a swing by the Kennedy Center where the Roundabout Theatre’s lively, traveling revival of Cole Porter’s lively 1934 musical, “Anything Goes,” is currently on tap.

Roundabout’s original New York revival was a big Broadway hit, copping three 2011 Tony Awards, and its roadshow iteration is likely to win even more fans in its travels across the continent this summer.

‘Anything Goes’ is one of those colorful, immensely entertaining shows that’s been revived again and again to considerable success. The reason why becomes perfectly clear within five minutes or so of the opening beat. Loaded with great Cole Porter tunes as well as the composer’s endlessly witty lyrics, chock full of scintillating dance numbers and populated by a talented cast that gets extra mileage from the corniest vaudeville-style jokes, routines and characters, there’s simply no resisting this production, which bursts at the seams with charm and good looks.

‘Anything Goes’ promo art, Roundabout Theatre Company.

The show’s lightweight plot finds us on board the good ship S.S. American, which is setting sail from New York to London. The ship’s passenger list gives things away almost immediately, setting the show’s various, intersecting plot arcs spinning.

Cranky, hard-drinking Wall Street wizard Elisha Whitney is already aboard, having ordered his young associate Billy Crocker to dump his shares in a company that insiders have told him is about to tank. (Sound familiar?)

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But lovesick Billy ends up as a stowaway instead in a desperate attempt to win the hand of his upper class girl, Hope Harcourt. Alas, she’s being coerced by her money-mad but cash poor mom, Evangeline, into marrying an impossibly wealthy Brit, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, mainly so mom can maintain the lifestyle to which she’s grown accustomed.

Meanwhile, there’s a strong religious element aboard the American as well. Except that two of the three reverends really aren’t reverent at all, including Public Enemy No. 13, Moonface Martin and Reno Sweeney, the chanteuse-in-chief headlining the ship’s impressive troupe of song-and-dance entertainers. Moonface, on the lam from the Feds, is disguised as a minister, while Reno, who’s good friends with Moonface, has departed from the cloth to earn bigger bucks as an entertainer.

Add into all this deceit the hapless Billy, who ends up traveling on the ticket of missing mobster “Snake Eyes,” and this ship is ready to rock with romance, mistaken identities, and outright farce, all united under the musical banner of Cole Porter’s greatest hits, or at least many of them. The cavalcade of songs includes “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “Easy to Love,” “Friendship,” “It’s De-lovely,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” “All Through the Night,” and, of course, the title song, “Anything Goes” (which everyone knows).

As often happens in traveling productions, cast members come and go for various reasons. For example, the original Broadway production included none other than Joel Grey as Moonface. This one doesn’t, subbing instead Broadway and TV vet Fred Applegate. The show also has a new Reno Sweeney, Rachel York, who replaces predecessors Stephanie Block and Sutton Foster.

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If anything, Washington seriously lucked out with this pair. Mr. Applegate looks much more like a two-bit gangster than the dapper Mr. Grey, and clearly has fun mining the part for all its comic worth.

Meanwhile, Ms. York…well, how can we find enough superlatives to describe “Anything Goes”?

Without detracting from the rest of the show’s fine cast, Ms. York is this production’s franchise player. Bright, sunny, and loaded with radiance and energy, her Reno Sweeney gives this show its edge in all categories, from singing, to acting to dance. Both she and Mr. Applegate give this show its wings, and both they and the rest of the cast soar on the prevailing winds of Porter’s lively, toe-tapping, positively infectious score.

Here’s a promo video highlighting the original production, which gives you the flavor of the current show: 

Also notable in the current show: Josh Franklin’s befuddled yet elegant Billy Crocker; Edward Staudenmayer’s comical yet good-natured Lord Oakleigh; Joyce Chittick’s brash and sassy Erma; and the light, but silver-sweet voice of Alex Finke as a winsome Hope Harcourt.

Choreography and crisp direction, both by Kathleen Marshall, couldn’t be better, particularly in the tap routines. The amplification of the singers, which this opera-oriented critic tends to detest, was well sculpted this time around, sounding nearly natural and never harsh. Costuming was 1930s showtime, with the ladies in particular coming out ahead in their simple, yet impossibly slinky gowns. And the show’s sets, dominated by the outsized decks of a perfectly art deco ship, were period perfect.

The show’s chorus couldn’t have been better, save, perhaps, for occasional lapses in diction, which rendered some of Porter’s humorously complex lyrics inoperable on occasion. Dance numbers were impeccable, and above all, everyone seemed to be having a good time onstage, something that always gets the audience smiling as well.

The orchestra, while clearly downsized from the New York production—a budgetary tic this critic frequently decries—was far less noticeable here than it was in a traveling production of “South Pacific” that appeared in this venue a couple of seasons ago. The jazzy arrangements covered the lack of strings, and the synthesizer keyboards generally didn’t pretend to fill them back in, lending the ensemble a fuller, more realistic sound, and one that blended beautifully with what was happening on stage.

This “Anything Goes” is, quite simply, the perfect summer entertainment and the perfect excuse to take all our minds off the economy, the banking system, and the IRS for at least one blessed evening. Kudos to the Roundabout Theatre’s cast and crew.

Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half stars.)

The Roundabout Theatre’s production of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” continues at the Kennedy Center Opera House through July 7, 2013. Tickets range from $25-115. For tickets and information, visit the Kennedy Center website.

Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

Follow Terry on Twitter @terryp17

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, movies and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was formerly the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2009) before moving online with Communities in 2010.  



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