"There's no cure like travel to help you unravel the worries of living today," sing the sailors of the SS American as they prepare for a transatlantic journey at the start of Anything Goes. Roundabout Theatre Company's shipshape revival of this Cole Porter vehicle, directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, doesn't pretend to offer anything more (or less) than just such old-fashioned escapism: a nostalgia trip on a big Broadway liner.
Like good meringue, insubstantiality requires skill to whip up. A total of six book writers are credited with the knowingly flimsy setting for Porter's jewellike score: a mildly naughty nautical farce involving gangsters, socialites, Yale men, a jazz singer and a pair of Chinese gamblers. In 1934, the show was already something of a throwback; its original script was by the English wags Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse, who had collaborated with Jerome Kern on the Princess Theatre musicals of the 1910s.
Since then, Anything Goes has been overhauled more regularly and extensively than any other major work in the Broadway-musical canon, with the possible exception of Pal Joey. Tailored to the talents of stars Ethel Merman (as nightclub chanteuse Reno Sweeney), William Gaxton (as oft-disguised romantic lead Billy Crocker) and Victor Moore (as adorable criminal Moonface Martin), the script underwent a complete rewrite by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse prior to its Broadway debut. Two unfaithful film adaptations followed, as well as a reconceived 1962 Off Broadway revival.
The version of Anything Goes that is currently afloat at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre is essentially the one that was concocted for Lincoln Center's hit 1987 revival, which starred Patti LuPone as Reno. By this time, the musical's weightlessness had become part of its charm. Its newest book writers—Russel Crouse's son, Timothy, and another second-generation Broadway librettist, John Weidman—modeled their treatment on the 1934 version, with a few Porter standards added in to sweeten the pot, including "It's De-lovely" and "Easy to Love." (The latter was actually written for the original production, but cut at Gaxton's behest.)
Those songs and the score's other highlights, such as "I Get a Kick Out of You," represent golden-age Broadway craftsmanship at its finest. The witty range of metaphors with which Reno and Billy out-compliment each other in "You're the Top," which extends the concept of excellence from Keats and Shelley to Mickey Mouse and cellophane, is typical of Porter's finesse at mixing highbrow and lowbrow elements into a single—unibrow?—sensibility.
If Porter is the star of Marshall's revival, it's partly because he doesn't have much competition. A pert, plucky triple threat, Sutton Foster carries the bulk of the score as Reno, and holds her own in the big numbers---especially in Marshall's undulating staging of the title song, which builds in waves and cascades in pleasing rushes of tap dance. Omnicapable though she is, however, Foster is a tomboy in a role built for a broad. LuPone's vocals in "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" exploded like a trumpet of lust; there's just nothing very horny about Foster. She anchors the show, but doesn't have the weight to stop it.
Yet who else, realistically, could be cast as Reno? Broadway doesn't seem to mint broads anymore. Older comic character actors are in wider supply, though, so the Roundabout could have skipped the revival's one real misstep: Joel Grey's strange, precious performance as the lovable goon Moonface Martin. Grey is musical-theater royalty, of course, but here he misses the boat. His "Friendship" duet with Foster is anemic, and the staging of his solo number, "Be Like the Bluebird"—in which he does a soft-shoe with a Tinkerbellish blue spotlight—puts a double dose of twee in "tweet, tweet."
Below the title, things start looking up. Colin Donnell is a deft, full-voiced and romantically persuasive Billy; as Hope, the pretty young lady he pines for, Laura Osnes knows how to give an ingenue some spine. The gangling Adam Godley nearly steals the show as her befuddled British fianc—he's a terrific comic dancer—and Arrested Development's Jessica Walter is enjoyably tart as her mother. Rounding out the cast with aplomb are Jessica Stone as a sailor-friendly floozy and the invaluable John McMartin as a perpetually sloshed millionaire.
Polished and restored in ways that emphasize its status as a musical-theater antique, the Cole-powered ship that is Anything Goes doesn't aim to transport you. What it does provide is smooth sailing—no small thing in Broadway's iceberg-ridden waters. The show still works as a pleasure cruise: Get on board, sit back and just enjoy the view as the old showboat glides comfortably on.—Adam Feldman