In 1934, in the midst of the Great Depression, Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” was about to go into rehearsal. Suddenly its plot, centering on the survivors of a shipwreck, had to be completely scrapped when news came that the S.S. Morro Castle burned and went down off the coast of New Jersey with the loss of 125 lives. Miraculously, the show was re-written and ultimately completed by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse (based on what was salvageable from the original book by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse) barely in time for opening night.
What could have been another Broadway disaster, in that already tremulous year, turned out to be its most successful musical. Of course, Porter’s classic score had as much to do with the show’s success as did the powerhouse performance of its acclaimed new star, Ethel Merman, as the brash Reno Sweeney. Patti LuPone starred in the last Broadway revival in 1987. But now it is the incredibly vivacious, multi-talented Sutton Foster’s turn to belt out “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” with mucho gusto.
Like Merman in her day, Foster appears to be taking ownership of Broadway’s musical stage. She has already won a gazillion awards for her performances in “Shrek,” “Young Frankenstein,” “The Drowsy Chaperone” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” She is the main but not the only reason to cheer this revival which, like the Paper Mill Playhouse revival in 2000, uses the new book by Timothy Crouse & John Weidman. Don’t be concerned that the new book offers anything remotely contemporary, as it adheres, as far as anyone needs to know, to the original plot.
It’s enough to know that Foster sings those great Porter songs as well as she dances to Kathleen Marshall’s hearty choreography. And those legs on Foster seem to extend from the boiler room to the poop deck. Marshall, who also directed, takes us to tap dance heaven (to the title song) for the Act 1 finale and tops it with a rousing, jazz-propelled “Blow Gabriel Blow” in Act II. Foster also gets her share of laughs within the silly plot that seems held together by a preponderance of hoary Wall-Street jokes, burlesque-era puns and double entendres. But they still work like a charm.
The plot revolves around a night club entertainer who is in love with a younger man, who is in love with another woman, who is currently engaged to an Englishman who gets involved with a gangster and a pair of Chinese stowaways. Anyway, there a shipboard multi-wedding finale that everyone who has tap shoes attends. The show actually pulls together like a Marx Brothers comedy without the boys. This is one of those musicals of yore that said forget the plot and remember the jokes.
The audience roared its approval from the minute the well-potted Wall Street broker Elisha Whitney (John McMartin) says of a despairing colleague on a ledge: “He jumped like a Yale man.” Worried that his own stock is “going to sink like the Titanic,” no one plays a rich drunk better than McMartin (“High Society,” “Grey Gardens”), and with red-eyed resolve, he solves his problem by going on a transatlantic cruise with some well-heeled folk who really know how to sing those grand old Porter melodies, tap their troubles away to the title song, and find romance “All Through the Night.”
Along with McMartin’s martini-award-winning portrayal, this “Anything Goes” boasts a treasure house of delightful supporting characters. Marshall’s direction is notable for keeping this ship (handsomely designed by Derek McLane) of melody and mirth riding the crest of the musical comedy wave. Theater and film veteran Jessica Walter gets the prescribed laughs as the classic stuffy and stiff dowager Mrs. Harcourt (Whitney remarks how “she could always fill out a girdle”).
And could there ever be a more perfectly cast Moonface Martin a.k.a Public Enemy No. 13 (soon to be elevated in status to #2) than the genuinely endearing gangster-faced Joel Grey. A real treasure of the musical theater (“Cabaret,” “George M,” “Wicked”), Grey gets his laughs and more disguised as a clergyman with a machine gun hidden in his violin case. Let’s nominate Grey Public Comedian No. 1.
As the sexy Erma, Moonface’s moll, there is that snappy doll Jessica Stone, whose sailor-beware delivery of the lesser-known gem of a ballad “Buddy, Beware” leaves more than the surrounding tars agog. Another rarely heard jewel is the haunting, all too brief ballad “Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye,” as sung by Hope (Laura Osnes), the show’s radiantly demure ingenue.
Hope had to glow in the moonlight given her wooing by Billy Crocker, as played by the good-looking and also multi-talented Colin Donnell. He helps us recall the confident panache of Fred Astaire as he twirls Osnes around the ship’s promenade. His fine voice makes great songs like “Easy to Love” (originally written for the 1934 production but dropped), “It’s De-Lovely,” and “All Through the Night” seem even greater.
Donnell’s flair for comedy should not be overlooked, even as Adam Godley, as the malapropism-prone Lord Evelyn wins the most comic points with such wonderfully idiotic phrases as “I think you’re the rat’s pajamas,” and “Anyone have hot pants for a game of shuffleboard?” Quinn, who gives new meaning to the song “The Gypsy in Me,” guides the show’s star in a sidesplitting beguine cum tango outragioso.
Marshall’s direction is first class all the way and gives the all the passengers and crew ample opportunities to demonstrate more than the time step. As one of the lesser-known songs tells us, “There’s No Cure Like Travel,” and I’ll add there is no cure like a voyage to the Stephen Sondheim Theater for “Anything Goes.” ***
“Anything Goes,” Stephen Sondheim Theater, 124 West 43rd Street. $87 to $142. 212-239-6200.