Cole Porter’s Anything Goes premiered in 1934, a decade before the rise of so-called “integrated musical theatre” – that is, musicals such as Oklahoma! in which the song and dance are integral to telling the story and developing characters, rather than a break from such matters.
And so director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall’s Tony-winning 2011 revival – now on tour and playing at Toronto’s Princess of Wales – treats the show as a series of loosely linked vaudeville routines and cabaret acts. That’s fair enough, because the plot, rejigged and rewritten many times by half a dozen writers since the 1930s, really doesn’t matter. You’re the Top; Blow, Gabriel, Blow; I Get a Kick Out of You – you could put the song list on shuffle, switch around which characters sing which hits, and the musical would still make about as much sense. There are Cirque du Soleil shows with greater narrative complexity.
Smitten Wall Street broker Billy Crocker (Josh Franklin) stows away on an England-bound ocean liner in order to try to break up the impending marriage of debutante Hope Harcourt (Alex Finke) to a British lord named Evelyn Oakleigh (Edward Staudenmayer).
Aiding him in his romantic antics are a couple of wise guys in disguise and an evangelist turned nightclub singer named Reno Sweeney. Sweeney was originated by Ethel Merman, while Patti Lupone and Sutton Foster both won Tony Awards for reviving the part in 1987 and 2011, respectively.
Broadway veteran Rachel York plays the part on this tour, and brings all the brassy star power it requires – plus a genuine long-legged lasciviousness that Foster lacked in New York.
York’s Reno in particular seems to exist both within and without the world of the musical. Her renditions of songs such as I Get a Kick Out of You are played to the audience rather than to other characters, and are sung to demonstrate her vocal virtuosity rather than to communicate any particular emotion. She takes such dramatic musical plunges in the middle of songs that at times her jaw seems to have momentarily dislocated.
The actress – if you haven’t seen her on Broadway, you may remember her portrayal of Lucille Ball in the 2003 TV movie Lucy – also proves herself more than capable of the dance number during the act-one finale, which Marshall turns into an endurance test.
The choreography is less impressive than it could be, however, because Derek McLane’s steamship set is restrictive – it has three levels of deck, but none of them really have any depth. At times, the tap dancing is so constrained that the cast seems like a line of Irish step dancers. (Also, what’s with all the squeaky shoes worn by the ensemble? It sounded like a flock of seagulls was released during It’s De-Lovely – tap aside, not every dance is made more aesthetically pleasing by being able to hear it.)
In eliciting superficial performances from her cast, Marshall must be aiming for a certain historical accuracy in performance style. Staudenmayer’s British toff is the only character who shows the slightest shred of emotional attachment. (Certainly, Finke’s whiny Hope and Franklin’s wimpy Billy don’t portray it in their on-again, off-again romance.)
A desire for authenticity may be behind Marshall’s choice of keeping in all the topical humour. In the list song You’re the Top, Billy and Reno boost each others’ spirits by comparing one another to the Colosseum, the Louvre, the Tower of Pisa and the smile of the Mona Lisa. But you may have to consult Wikipedia to decipher references like “the eyes of Irene Bordoni,” “a Brewster body” or a “Coolidge dollar” in later verses. (It’s always interesting to me that comparing someone to cellophane might be considered a compliment in Porter’s time, but 40 years later it was a musical insult in Kander and Ebb’s Chicago.)
These verses might please trivia buffs, but if they were cut, the first act would be more streamlined – at the moment, with extra Porter songs added in as if this were a jukebox musical, it feels more like Everything Goes. (On a similar note, with its list of six writers, the script is not exactly canonical – surely there’s a way to rewrite the denouement to avoid having the leads disguise themselves as Chinese men and speaking in funny accents?)
Marshall’s old-fashioned production came across as a kind of children’s theatre for geriatrics when I saw it on Broadway. On a night when Toronto was under an extreme heat alert for the third day in a row, this approach to Anything Goes was about all my brain could handle and I was entirely carried away – put down as much of that to the fact the Princess of Wales has air conditioning as you like.