Things haven't been going all that well for the Roundabout Theatre Company over the past few seasons, particularly when it comes to musical theater. Two seasons back, Pal Joey was a thoroughly dismal affair. And Bye Bye Birdie last season was an utter abomination before all man- and woman-kind.
But the Roundabout seems to have rebounded quite handily with Anything Goes, a joyous revival of the Cole Porter favorite. Director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall and her staff seem to have stuck pretty close to the script from the 1988 revival with Patti LuPone, which is sort of symbolic of the entire production: there's nothing entirely new on view at The Stephen Sondheim Theater, but the entire enterprise is thoroughly professional, and a heck of a lot of fun.
Anything Goes occupies a unique position in musical-theater history: it's really the only show from the old style of musicals before Oklahoma that has lasted, albeit with significant changes upon each reincarnation. As I tell my students, this is fairly fitting, since the original show was a bit of a rush job. The original book was by the "Princess" pair P. G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, and was supposed to be about a shipwreck, but a large passenger ship sank off the coast of New Jersey shortly before the show was to open. As this would have been somewhat akin to a musical version of "The Towering Inferno" opening just after 9/11, the creative team panicked. Wodehouse and Bolton were in London, so the show's director, Howard Lindsay, teamed up with press agent Russell Crouse to throw together a quick re-write, which actually became the start of a successful writing team.
The 1963 Off-Broadway version of Anything Goes featured a revised book by Guy Bolton, and interpolated many of the Cole Porter numbers that we often associate with the show, but in fact were written for other Porter shows. These numbers include "It's De-Lovely" (from Red, Hot and Blue) and "Friendship" (from Dubarry Was a Lady). It's a testament to the non-integrated nature of Porter's songs that they are so easily transported from show to show. Porter was decidedly old school with respect to song-smithing, and wrote songs that were meant to be hits, not to fit a particular context within his shows. I mention this not as criticism merely observation: the same could be said of most of the output of George and Ira Gershwin, and we're talking some pretty glorious songs here.
But even the songs that were actually written for Anything Goes represented some questionable integration. When Cole Porter wrote "I Get a Kick Out of You," he knew it was going to a hit, but because the song occurred at the top of the show, he knew that his society friends, who always arrived fashionably late, would probably miss the song. So, he put in a reprise in Act 2 to make sure his influential friends would be exposed to the song and help make it a hit. I always use this example in my course as a point of contrast when I'm discussing the origin of the "dramatic reprise" (e.g. "Make Believe" from Show Boat, "If I Loved You" from Carousel).
OK, enough with the history lesson. The current production starts off a bit slow, but eventually act one builds to an effervescent crescendo. And Marshall's rousing take on the show's title number puts an energetic tag on the first act that excuses a multitude of plotting and pacing sins. Marshall has a knack for creating fluid old-fashioned choreography that also features quirky touches of modern inspiration. She also know how to dress a stage, and makes effective use of Derek McLane's multi-tiered set.
But, with all due respect to Marshall, this production's key asset is its absolutely top-notch cast. Sutton Foster is a marvel in anything she does, and in another age would have been the kind of performer that they created shows like Anything Goes especially for. Marshall makes effective use of Foster's many talents, to the point of re-conceiving "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" as a dance number. It's almost as though the show itself is saying, "Good Lord, a Reno Sweeney who can dance! Let's show her off." Even the sleepy blue-hairs at the Wednesday matinee that I attended woke up and took notice, and the number genuinely stopped the show.
Capably framing Foster is a talented complement of the best of Broadway, both past and present. From the old guard, we have the spry and adorable Joel Grey as Moonface Martin, and the masterfully comic John McMartin hamming it up swimmingly as Elisha Whitney. From the younger set, we have the charming Colin Donnell as Billy Crocker, a handsome and talented young man who almost made Johnny Baseball at the A.R.T. bearable. And a significant surprise for me was the winsome and sparkling Laura Osnes as Hope Harcourt. Say what you want about reality TV and the most recent revival of Grease, it provided a springboard for the eminently worthy Ms. Osnes. After winning her way onto Broadway, Osnes has since established herself as a dependable leading lady, both here and in taking Kelli O'Hara's place in South Pacific. And if Anything Goes is any indication, she should be around for many seasons to come.
The Roundabout recently announced that Anything Goes, which was originally supposed to run until July, has been extended to January 2012. I recommend taking it in, to witness both the best of what Broadway once was, and the best that it still can be.