Anything Goes–Classic Ahoy!


Even within the ramshackle musical books of the 1930s, Cole Porter tailored his songs to fit character and situation. This makes it all the odder that he turned out his most memorable score of the period for Anything Goes (Stephen Sondheim Theatre)—the 1934 shipboard romantic comedy that hit rough seas, script-wise, on its pre-Broadway tryout, replaced its plot and its book writers before opening, triumphantly, in New York, and has taken on a ballast of new dialogue plus revised song list with every revival since.

Director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall’s new production employs, with only minimal touch-ups, the version prepared for Lincoln Center’s 1987 revisal, and mostly generates a similar degree of brash, noisy fun, without overmuch concern for making reasonable dramatic coherence. What’s different today is largely a matter of sensibility: Porter’s sublime songs are the show’s leading feature, but Marshall’s musical staging tends either to spell out lyrics literally or toss them into oblivion for the sake of generating high-energy, whoop-de-doo dances. She works up a terrific one, for the title song, to close the first act, but in several other spots, her cast sails so speedily over the surface of the number that only those who already know the song will notice how good Porter’s writing is.

That’s a pity because Marshall’s cast possesses several strong assets, starting with Sutton Foster, as Reno Sweeney, the nightclub-revivalist, a role famously originated on stage and film by Ethel Merman. Primarily a dancer who can belt out big tunes rather than a singer per se, Foster shepherds the cast through the mare’s-nest plot with the perky, infectious enthusiasm of a self-appointed recreation director. Vocally, she’s outclassed by handsome Colin Donnell, as Billy, the hero who only wants to be the smitten Reno’s best pal, presumably because his tones blend so much better with those of the society girl played by sweet-voiced Laura Osnes.

Marshall glides, often in haste, over the show’s comedy scenes, too, but that’s just as well: They’ve been rickety claptrap since 1934; the 1987 version’s rewrite, which tries to solve them by putting self-conscious quotes around lame jokes like the one about Indo-China and outdoor China, only marginally improves matters. Luckily, indefatigable John McMartin, as a tipsily lecherous billionaire, and Walter Charles, as the liner’s crisp, beleaguered captain, can kick-start even lame humor, though Joel Grey, twinkly and avuncular, makes an unconvincing gangster even outside the three-mile limit.