Saturday, April 30, 2011

Theater Review: Anything Goes

“Can you sort out what she’s singing?” a friend whispered after the title song had been performed by Patti LuPone, the extraordinarily talented and usually reliable musical theatre star.  The occasion was the hit revival of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes at Lincoln Center in the fall of 1987. “Not a word,” I replied, “and I know every syllable of every song in the show.”  LuPone had somehow managed to unaccustomedly distort and slur almost every lyric of the carol.

Two weeks later I attended a performance of Forbidden Broadway, a long-running review that spoofed both Broadway and off-Broadway fare. Parodies of shows that were currently being presented were interwoven with apt travesties of legendary prima donnas: Merman, Streisand, Channing, et al. The impersonations were farcically broad; and I howled when one member of the cast, coifed and made up to look exactly like Ms. LuPone, offered an extravagantly garbled, incomprehensible, completely ludicrous version of the Porter song, “Anything Goes.” The word, of course, was out. However, the star is now back on track, and it’s reassuring to report that every syllable of each lyric LuPone has sung in recent theatrical performances has gratefully been disentangled.

But if anyone still exists who demands proof of Sutton Foster’s immeasurable talent, let him hasten to New York’s Stephen Sondheim Theatre, where Anything Goes, Porter’s 1934 musical, is being excitingly revived under the disciplined direction of Kathleen Marshall. Everything about the current production seems right. Marshall’s choreography is inventive and exuberant; Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes are colorfully flattering; and Derek McLane’s stylishly opulent Art Deco set design (the triple decks of a ship with sliding panels that open to staterooms, bar and ballroom), moodily lit by Peter Kaczorowski, provides an excellent spatial extension to accommodate the action.

The show’s original book has been modified for the current production by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman.  While it’s true that the libretto is foolish hokum about gangsters, mischievous lovers and an assured, hymn-singing evangelist, it provides the needed vehicle to hear some of Porter’s greatest songs, which are performed to near-perfection under Rob Fisher’s supervision.  Soon after the curtain is lifted, Reno (the scintillating Sutton Foster) tells a beau, Billy Crocker (Colin Donnell), that she’s about to leave on a cruise.  Before that, however, she assures the lad that she gets “a kick ev’ry time I see/You’re standing there before me/I get a kick though it’s clear to me/You obviously don’t adore me.”  As it will turn out, however, Billy has already met someone else; he and Reno are merely playmates.

This musical’s silly plot, an excuse to string together some of Porter’s excellent songs, should not be taken too seriously. (The show’s book stems from years before Rodgers and Hammerstein introduced the integrated musical in which libretto, music and lyrics explained the characters very much like Shakespeare clarified them through his soliloquies.)  Reno is to sail to England on the same ship as Hope Harcourt (Laura Osnes), the woman Crocker wants to marry.  And when Crocker goes to see Hope off, he spontaneously decides to stow away on the boat so that he could be near his love. He receives help and a phony passport from a reverend, Moonface Martin (Joel Grey), a little man and a colorful character who is known as “Public Enemy number 13.”  Because Reno is a former evangelist and Martin is a counterfeit minister, we’re treated to a rousing rendition of “Blow, Gabriel, Blow”: “But when I got to Satan’s door/I heard you blowin‘ on your horn once more./So I said ‘Satan farewell.’”

There is seemingly no end to the delights that Porter’s score provides.  The first act finale to the title song, for example, is breathtaking. The speed and sound of tapping feet to the Porter melody conjure up those old movies in which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers electrified the screen.  But we take much delight in a score without a weak musical number.  A personal favorite that illustrates Porter’s erudition is “You’re the Top,” a song in which Billy and Reno compliment one another in an itemized fashion: “You’re the top!/You’re the Colosseum./You’re the top!/You’re the Louvre Museum./You’re a melody from a symphony by Strauss,/You’re a Bendel bonnet,/A Shakespeare sonnet,/You’re Mickey Mouse.”

Anything Goes is a musical that might date from 1934, but (with the incomparable Sutton Foster on deck), it is (to quote from another Porter musical) “pure enchantment in disguise.”