It would seem that on this trip, I have saved the best shows for my last two New York days. (Not counting War Horse of Course.) After Friday night’s successful outing to Brooklyn and Richard III, I began Saturday with the matinee of Anything Goes. Contrasts don’t get any “starker” than that! Except that Saturday night was an evening spent with Look Back in Anger. That was also pretty stark! It made for a great day, although I might have wished for them in reverse order.
Anything Goes now goes to the head of my list whenever anyone asks me “What should I see in New York?” It’s the most genuine out and out fun I’ve had in the theatre in some time. “Oh come on,” you say. Yes, I know it was written in 1934, with one of the dumbest plots you’ve ever sat through, and it’s done badly all the time by community and school theaters, and it’s been made into a movie twice. But really, this is the best thing up on Broadway for sheer guilt-free fun, and without a single coherent thought to be discovered or belabored. Yes, the War Horse production is still my favorite theatrical creation, but it required me to be responsive to its great themes. And yes, I laughed just as hard at the ingenious Book of Mormon. But then I had to understand and take a position on the jokes. You don’t have to think in Anything Goes. It’s a series of senseless antics aboard a New York-to-London Ocean liner, hung loosely on a conventional love-wins-in-the-end story. All you have to do is sit back and let the magic happen: relax, watch, listen, smile, hum along, tap your feet, and guffaw out loud! It’s Cole Porter!!! For starters, you’ve got “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “So Easy to Love,” “You’re the Top,” “It’s Delovely,” “Blow Gabriel Blow,” “All Through the Night,” and of course “Anything Goes.” Judging from their wide grins, even the kids in the audience loved the music and the dancing. There may be hope that the headset generation will survive after all. Those of us in the audience over 50 just looked at them and nodded “I told you so.” Of course, it was our parents who really played these records at home. We weren’t old enough ourselves to have experienced the jazz era at first hand. … But, the kids don’t know that.
You will not see better traditional jazz dancing than you will in Anything Goes. Massive precision tap dances and beautiful pairs abound. “Dancing with the Stars” and the like just don’t cut it. You gotta be there to feel the joy onstage and the swell of exhilaration passing through the audience.
There is some superb talent onstage to make all that happen. Joel Grey, so memorable as the Emcee in Cabaret, plays the gangster Moonface Martin in a delightful take-off on Joe E. Brown. And then there is Sutton Foster, as Reno Sweeney, a role originated by Ethel Merman. Lets face it: She channels (Dare I say it – “tops”?) Ethel Merman! (No… No way to justify “tops.”) But Foster exhales the same impressively talented combination of power, joy and melody. And can she dance!!! … And sing, at the same time, beautifully, on key, with no shortness of breath!!!! I actually haven’t been a huge lover of musicals since Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lerner & Lowe passed from the scene. So the name Sutton Foster was not especially familiar to me, despite her having been around on Broadway since 1996 and earning two Tony awards among many others. She’s an overwhelmingly powerful performer. She’s the primary reason to overcome any hesitation and see this old clunker of a show one more time. And she and Joel Grey are surrounded by a top-notch cast. It all comes together to make for one of the most exhilarating two hours in the theater I’ve had in years.
It’s all “Thanks be” to the producer, the Roundabout Theatre Company, founded only in 1965 as a small homebase-less off-Broadway company, and now the largest non-profit theatre company in the country. It operates five theatres in New York, including this one, the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, site of Anything Goes. It used to be the Henry Miller, until BankAmerica tore down the block to raise the city’s now second highest skyscraper. (See my blog entry on Company Men of April 3, 2011.) I mention that particular sore peeve of mine only because in the process they were commendably persuaded to save the old theatre’s façade and remodel the interior into a beautiful and efficient contemporary space. Bravo!