‘Anything Goes’ returns for 2022, with an all-new cast, headed up by Kerry Ellis as Reno Sweeney, Denis Lawson as Moonface Martin, Simon Callow as Elisha Whitney and Bonnie Langford as Evangeline Harcourt. This review is from 2021, of the production’s original UK cast.
We should cherish musicals like ‘Anything Goes’ for lots of reasons. But a big one is that I don’t think anyone would write it today: its mixture of timeless songs, virtuosic wit and an offhandedly back-of-a-fag-packet book speaks of a different age when nobody much cared what musicals were *about* just so long as the talent was there.
And what talent! Based around songs by the great Cole Porter, it has a book by PG Wodehouse and Guy Bolton that ended up being drastically rewritten by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse for reasons that seem historically disputed. Not that anyone seems to mind because ‘Anything Goes’ has proven to be a whomping big hit that’s been merrily tinkered with over the years: one of its biggest numbers, the peerless Porter standard ‘It’s De-Lovely’, wasn’t even added until 1962, 28 years after the musical premiered.
You can see why its flimsiness has proved so enduring: just as ‘Anything Goes’ cheered up audiences in the 1930s – which, lest we forget, were awful – so it’s undoubtedly a tonic for our gloomy times. This was my first time back in a capacity theatre since last March, and the first time since then that I’ve been in an audience that wasn’t mostly masked. I am very much on the fence as to whether this is a sane idea. But you couldn’t ask for a more pleasurable way to ease back into notional normality than with this gloriously daft romcom about some horny people on a boat.
The plot is so negligible it barely needs to be addressed (boat. Horny people. Okay?) but the engine of the story is the burgeoning romance between dishy young stockbroker Billy Crocker (Samuel Edwards) and sweet debutante Hope Harcourt (Nicole-Lily Baisden), who is unfortunately engaged to barking mad Englishman Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Haydn Oakley), with all three of them stuck together on a luxury transatlantic cruise liner heading from New York to London.
They’re likeable young things, but if you take any more than a passing interest in what happens to them then you’re doing it wrong.
The ‘point’ of ‘Anything Goes’ is the notionally more peripheral characters, particularly the sassy evangelist-turned-singer Reno Sweeney, who is the show’s lead by default because she gets all the big numbers.
And imported Broadway star Sutton Foster effortlessly steals every scene as Reno with a devastating mix of raw talent – she is very much the proverbial triple-threat – and sheer, gutbusting effort. Plus she’s very funny, aided by some smart interventions made by director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall – reprising her slick 2011 Broadway production – that up Reno’s knowingness: Foster’s arsenal of fourth-wall-breaking smirks, eyerolls and sighs provide virtual running commentary on the rest of the action. The climactic first-half title number and her big second half medley ‘Blow, Gabriel, Blow’ are just astounding, life-affirming eruptions of the raw, visceral power of musical theatre as a craft. Yes, Foster has plenty of support from the ensemble, notably in the sublime mass tap-off at the end of ‘Anything Goes’ (the song). But she’s at the thick of it each time, leading the troops like some spangly general of old – the precision, the talent, the sheer *effort* is just jaw-dropping, even as Reno remains a relentlessly breezy character. It’s a veritably Olympian performance.
Veteran Brit Robert Lindsay can’t really hope to keep up with her (the man’s 71 for chrissakes) but he offers her a terrific comic foil as shambolic second-tier gangster Moonface Martin, who has snuck on board the ship for Reasons, and essentially spends the show threatening to do something terrible to somebody with a machine gun, while remaining relentlessly cuddly. Wilfully dysfunctional and ad-libbing all over the shop, Lindsay has a very entertaining duet with Reno (‘Friendship’) in which he mostly tries to get Foster to corpse, which is genuinely great fun.
In a show that has no functional plot but more characters than a season of ‘Game of Thrones’, there’s also fun supporting work from Gary Wilmot as Billy’s boomingly idiotic boss Elisha. Felicity Kendall raises a smile as Hope’s self-absorbed, status-obsessed mum. And Carly Mercedes Dyer is entertaining as Moonface’s acquaintance Erma, squeaky-voiced and fabulous as the horniest of all the horny people on the horny boat.
They don’t make ’em like this anymore – and even if they did, the massive cast and sumptuous orchestra still feel like an astonishing luxury anomaly in pingtastic 2021. But it feels fresh: the only thing to prompt a real eyebrow-raise in 2021 is the late number ‘The Gypsy in Me’ – it’s basically harmless, but I don’t think anyone would write it today.
All in all, Marshall’s revival of ‘Anything Goes’ mirrors the cruise it depicts: it doesn’t really go anywhere, but the journey is utterly ravishing and your crew is out of this world.