'Anything Goes': Theater Review

Anything Goes - Performance Shot - 2011
Colin Donnell/Roundabout Theater
Vintage Broadway musicals were about pure pleasure, and this one delivers a boatload of it.

Kathleen Marshall's delectable revival provides an ideal vehicle for Sutton Foster to showcase her triple-threat talents.

NEW YORK -- Cole Porter songs and tap-dancing sailors? What’s not to love? Pretty much nothing in Kathleen Marshall’s delectable revival of Anything Goes, which arguably provides the best vehicle yet for Sutton Foster to showcase the sensational talent and charm that make her a throwback to Broadway musical comedy stars of the golden age.

Unlike Kelli O’Hara, whose leading-lady credentials were cemented chiefly in revivals of The Pajama Game and South Pacific, Foster has made her name on new musicals. Those have included retro-styled pastiches (Thoroughly Modern Millie and The Drowsy Chaperone), as well as more conventional original shows (Little Women, Young Frankenstein and Shrek). Even in variable material, Foster consistently manages to shine. In this Roundabout production, she’s doing what she was born to do, which is headline a splashy old-fashioned musical.

As brassy 1930s nightclub entertainer Reno Sweeney, Foster steps into shoes worn by Ethel Merman, Ann Miller and Patti LuPone. And even if she doesn’t conform to the standard type for this character, she can croon sweetly, belt with the best of them or sock across a comedy number. A real-deal triple-threat, she can also lead the most taxing of dance routines, matching the athletic chorus kids kick for kick. 

Foster has a unique comic presence. It’s not intended as a slight to say there’s nothing especially ladylike about her. With her loping gait and manly stance, she’s no delicate flower, but her leggy physique and chameleon-like features allow her to vamp, camp and clown with equal conviction. She also has the rare distinction of striking up real chemistry with every co-star.

Marshall helps by surrounding Foster with a class crew. Passengers and stowaways on a glamorous transatlantic steamer, they include Joel Grey as minor-league gangster Moonface Martin and Jessica Stone as tag-along floozy Erma. There’s also boozing Wall St. kingpin Elisha Whitney (John McMartin) and his employee Billy Crocker (Colin Donnell).

Immune to Reno’s romantic feelings for him, Billy loves beautiful debutante Hope Harcourt (Laura Osnes), who also swoons for him but is duty-bound to marry English aristocrat Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Adam Godley). Hope’s father jumped to his death following the Stock Market crash and her mother Evangeline (Jessica Walter) demands to be kept in jewels and furs.

The book for the 1934 show is something of a mish-mash. Originally penned by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, it was reworked when the luxury liner the Morro Castle burned at sea, making a key plot point suddenly awkward. Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse came in to overhaul the script, beginning a long and fruitful theater collaboration. Timothy Crouse (son of Russel) and John Weidman goosed up the book for the hit 1987 Lincoln Center revival with LuPone.

The story is basically the usual silly froth about mismatched lovers who get reshuffled in the end, à la A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the ever-impish Grey’s Moonface as Puck. But the show is so packed with daffy physical shtick, comical dialogue and those still dazzlingly clever Cole Porter lyrics that it’s impossible not to surrender.

There’s no attempt to layer on winking contemporary attitudes or to make concessions for the material’s corniness. As with her work on The Pajama Game and Wonderful Town, Marshall is at her best when presenting period pieces at face value.

Every principal cast member nails a sharp comic caricature. McMartin’s Whitney is a benignly cranky old soak; the sublime Walter reeks of vainglorious self-absorption; lovely and vulnerable, Osnes is effortlessly soignée; Godley is an upper-class Brit twit blithely mangling American colloquialisms; and Stone serves up a classic brazen moll with relish, mesmerizing a bunch of strapping seamen on “Buddie, Beware.”

The discovery here is Donnell. Confined to small roles or replacement parts up to now, he has the looks, the poise, the singing and dancing skills and the leading-man charisma. This show should boost his stock.

Derek McLane’s old-school swanky set, Martin Pakledinaz’s swellegant costumes and Peter Kaczorowski’s liquid-candy lighting add to the intoxication. But Marshall’s nimble handling of number after number is what makes the experience so enjoyable. She knows enough to keep the comic songs focused on the personalities, so Foster and Donnell glow with mutual admiration on “You’re the Top,” while Foster and Grey are a riot of double-edged affection in “Friendship,” and Foster and Godley a goofball delight in “The Gypsy in Me.”

At first, Marshall seems to hold back on the choreographic elements, but the steady build just makes the seismic tap-dancing explosion of “Anything Goes” at the close of act one even more exhilarating. While the audience is still recovering after intermission, Marshall wallops them again with the wild evangelical orgy of “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.” Leading that one-two punch must be like running the New York Marathon for Foster, but she makes it look easy.

The girl’s definitely got it and this gorgeously sung, buoyantly staged show is bliss.

Venue: Stephen Sondheim Theatre, New York
Cast: Sutton Foster, Joel Grey, Colin Donnell, Adam Godley, Laura Osnes, Jessica Stone, Walter Charles, Robert Creighton, Andrew Cao, Raymond J. Lee, John McMartin, Jessica Walter
Director-choreographer: Kathleen Marshall
Music and lyrics: Cole Porter
Original book: P.G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, Howard Lindsay, Russel Crouse
New book: Timothy Crouse, John Weidman
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Martin Pakledinaz
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound designer: Brian Ronan
Music supervisor/vocal arranger: Rob Fisher
Music director: James Lowe
Original orchestrations: Michael Gibson
Additional orchestrations: Bill Elliott
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company