Anything goes, doesn’t it? Definitely, in Cole Porter’s terrific musical comedy, Anything Goes. It is as near perfection as anything can go, both as musical (tremendous songs) and as comedy (glorious fun). With a book by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, as revised by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, and intelligently updated by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman, this is one case where that many cooks do not spoil the brew. The brew is just right, and Momus, the god of comedy, smiles in his heaven.
There are extremely few musicals in which every song is a winner–Pal Joey and Follies come to mind–but Anything Goes is right there snapping at their heels. It has one or two songs that lack the perfection of the others, but then there is the superb production to smooth over tiny bumps in the road to . . . where? Xanadu? El Dorado?Elysian Fields?
It is the story of an eastward Atlantic crossing on the S.S. American, where at first missteps seem to prevail. There is the widowed Mrs. Evangeline Harcourt with her niece Hope, along with Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, whom the girl is to lovelessly wed in London. There is billionaire Elisha Whitney, running from a bad investment and seeking consolation from booze and Boola Boola (like Porter, he’s a Yale grad), also Billy Crocker, his young stockbroker, ordered to stay at the Stock Exchange, but who exchanges his duties for stowing away in pursuit of the affianced Hope, who secretly and quasi-hopelessly pines away for him.
Then there is Reno Sweeney, most sensual of evangelists, operating in nightclubs but now proselytizing on shipboard with her ancillary quartet of sexy “angels.” Also Moonface Martin, public enemy Nr. 13, disguised as a minister, accompanied by his flighty, sailor-vamping moll Erma and his rather more trusty machine gun posing as an encased violin. Further, a genuine minister mistaken for a gangster, and promptly hustled off by two FBI men, thus leaving behind two dubious Chinese converts: gambler Luke and drinker John, ready for relapse.
Out of these and the bedeviled Captain and Purser, as well as a crew of hedonistic sailors, the story winds and unwinds from magnificent confusion to a wondrous conclusion. The gags come thick and fast, the great songs ditto, including such stunners as “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “Easy to Love,” “It’s De-lovely,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” “All Through the Night,” and the rousing title song, to name only the de-loveliest. All is as wonderful as can be when the excellent composer is also the inspired lyricist, as besides Porter’s is only the case of Coward, Berlin and Sondheim. I myself am a sucker for lyrics like, “You’re the top!/ You’re Mahatma Gandhi/ You’re the top!/ You’re Napoleon brandy./ You’re the purple light of a summer night in Spain/ You’re the National Gall’ry,/ You’re Garbo’s sal’ry/ You’re cellophane.”
Now what do you get when such golden material is directed, choreographed, designed and acted by platinum artists? Manna from Heaven, I’d say. Let’s begin with Kathleen Marshall, hitherto a highly competent director-choreographer, but herewith a genius. Some of her dance routines cover more time and space than you would think possible, and blend rhythmic exuberance with lyrical elegance into an ever-changing and breathtaking (for both dancers and audience) whole. Add to this as conductor and arrangers such imposing figures as Rob Fisher, Michael Gibson and David Chase, and you float on a sea of wonders.
The cast? Start with the Reno Sweeney of Sutton Foster, surely the supreme star of the younger generation. She accomplishes the rare amalgam of sexy and sunny: lovely of face, figure and gams; exquisitely comic in expression, gesture and timing, with, on top of that, a Merman voice and Astaire feet. Plus her stupendous stamina, outgyrating a whirling dervish and holding a note longer than an ambulance its siren. Did the word “enchanting” not already exist, it would surely have been invented for her.
Here, too, are the sweetly farcical Joel Grey (Moonface), dashingly virile Colin Donnell (Billy), the riotous comics John McMartin (Whitney) and Adam Godley (Evelyn), the stately matron Jessica Walter (Evageline), the delicious ingénue Laura Osnes (Hope), the sassy comedienne Jessica Stone (Erma), and the amusingly befuddled Captain and Purser of Walter Charles and Robert Creighton, along with no less negligible others.
The endlessly inventive set designer Derek McLane has come up with a jaunty ship of cools in shape, color, and versatile mobility; Martin Pokledinaz’s costumes are a Lucullan feast for the eye; and Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting beats even the purple light of a summer night in Spain.
I caught a matinee performance, but would have happily sat through the evening one as well, and a couple more. But I mustn’t be greedy; you, dear readers, may want those seats just as much as I do.
John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com andBloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review andWashington Post. He has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures and Connoisseur and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College. To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.