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‘Anything Goes’ offers escape from troubled times

What goes around comes around. Especially when it comes to “Anything Goes.”

Consider, for example, these lyrics from Cole Porter’s sassy title tune:

“The world has gone mad today and good’s bad today and black’s white today and day’s night today … ”

It’s one signal that, although “Anything Goes” first set sail in 1934, it remains as delightful, and de-lovely, as ever.

Starting Tuesday, Smith Center audiences will have the chance to see (and hear) for themselves, when the Tony-winning musical revival docks at Reynolds Hall for an eight-performance run.

Times have changed, but now – as when “Anything Goes” made its Broadway debut – the show serves as a great escape for, and from, not-so-great times.

When it first arrived on Broadway, “the country was just coming out of the darkest days of the Depression and Prohibition had just been repealed,” notes director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall, who won a Tony for the show’s rollicking dance numbers. “People had a need to be released.”

In 2013, the show can “serve the same function,” she says, with its “smart, witty colorful entertainment” providing “an escape from the world for a few hours.”

In addition to offering a getaway from troubled times, “Anything Goes” also enables today’s audiences to escape to another era, she adds.

Just ask Rachel York, alias Reno Sweeney, the show’s leading lady – or, more precisely, leading dame.

Originally played by future legend Ethel Merman, most recently portrayed by Tony-winner Sutton Foster, Reno’s an evangelist-turned-nightclub chanteuse who shakes up the S.S. American, a luxury liner bound for Britain with a motley crew indeed.

Joining Reno aboard the aforementioned ship of fools are (among others), charming debutante Hope Harcourt (Alex Finke ); Hope’s wealthy British fiance (Edward Staudenmayer ); gangster Moonface Martin (Fred Applegate); and stowaway Billy Crocker (Erich Bergen), the object of Reno’s affection, who’s determined to win Hope’s heart – and hand.

You can tell the kind of swell gal Reno really is when she gamely helps Billy in his romantic quest. But at least she gets to belt out such Porter classics as “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top” and the show’s title song in the process.

Playing Reno on the “Anything Goes” national tour – which began last October and continues until November – can be a challenging proposition, York admits. Especially when she spends her days with her 2-year-old daughter, Olivia.

“The schedule can be grueling,” she acknowledges, after a 90-minute-plus struggle to get Olivia down for a nap during the tour’s San Francisco stop. “There are times when I start the show and I’m exhausted, or maybe I’ve had a bad day, and the show will lift my spirits.”

Along with those of the audience.

“It’s like going on a cruise for 2½ hours,” in York’s view. “It’s so nourishing to the soul. It brings you so much joy.”

The show’s power to divert and delight sometimes comes as a surprise to audiences, York and Marshall point out.

“They probably think it’s just going to be a lot of fluff,” York says, with some nice Porter tunes compensating for “a little fluffy piece of theater. But it’s really much more than that.”

Beyond the “fantastic, witty, lush” Porter score, filled with his trademark risque wordplay, “Anything Goes” represents “everything I love in musical comedy,” Marshall admits. In addition to the “sort of a screwball comedy” energy, there’s “romance at its heart.”

The show treats its sometimes farcical characters as real people, the director explains. “Everyone behaves with great urgency … and that’s where the comedy comes from.”

Naturally, times have changed since “Anything Goes” first burst upon the Broadway scene. And the show has changed with them, from the very beginning.

Even before its 1934 premiere, writers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse (who went on to script “The Sound of Music,” among other Broadway hits) had three weeks to revamp the original P.G. Wodehouse-Guy Bolton book in the wake of a real-life cruise ship tragedy. Retooled for a 1962 off-Broadway production, “Anything Goes” underwent even more revisions for a 1987 Lincoln Center production, courtesy of writers John Weidman and Timothy Crouse (Russel’s son), who tweaked the current version’s script.

After all, “it is 25, 26 years later,” Marshall acknowledges, “and things that maybe got a chuckle then, don’t now.”

But while times have changed, much of what made “Anything Goes” a hit in 1934 – and ever after – retains its impact today.

Chief among these attributes: the tap-happy dance numbers that revive the irresistibly rhythmic style.

The show’s dances provide such a good workout that York “lost all my baby fat” performing the high-stepping numbers – including the eight-minute title song. “It’s like my workout at the gym.”

Except a lot more fun, of course.

“I joke that we should sell tap dance lessons at intermission,” Marshall says.

She cites current movie and TV projects – from “Glee” and “Dancing with the Stars” to “Les Miserables” – as evidence that “there are all kinds of ways people are accepting song and dance” these days.

Including, of course, the touring production of “Anything Goes,” which is going gangbusters on the road.

The show’s success, Marshall says, “gives me great hope that classic musical comedy … still speaks to today’s audience.”

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@
reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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