'Anything Goes': Broadway Babe Rachel York Runs the Show
There are probably some very hip, very cool theater customers with their thumbs on text and their minds on Twitter and the next thing going viral who might find the national tour of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” bewilderingly old fashioned, as in an old fashioned with all the right ingredients.
In the annals of musical theater history, “Anything Goes,” now getting a jazzy, spiffy run at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House, is practically ancient history, a show so old that, for god’s sake, it made a star out of Ethel Merman and featured such old plot devices—as least as old as “Twelfth Night” --as people pretending to be other people, jokes that shake with burlesque dust, chorus girls and tap dance numbers and a faux dog, stuff that you could find on a vaudeville production roster.
Man, it’s so old that the usual admonition to turn off your phone was accompanied by the information that in the time of “Anything Goes,” iPhones and iPads had not been invented yet. That’s how old this show is.
Tell it to that great genial genius composer and song writer Cole Porter, who, in 1934, managed to sneak in a reference to cocaine (in “I Get a Kick Out of You"). Porter could rhyme on a dime. When it was decided to title the show “Anything Goes,” he went home and wrote the song overnight, or so the story goes, which is to say anything goes.
Tell that to the chorus boys and girls and who ever invented tap dancing, a thing so simple and complicated that it can induce a warm glow for the duration—you get a kick from all the kicking and tapping.
Tell that especially to Merman and Mitzi Gaynor and, more recently, Sutton Foster, who wowed in the Broadway version of this production. Now and forever, tell it to Rachel York who’s taking on the role of the wise-cracking, dazzling, leggy, high-stepping Reno Sweeney and making it her own. Not only is York the best reason to see the show, she’s practically a swaggering, swanky, swell, walking, dancing, tapping check list of what I call Broadway babies, the indispensable stars who can do anything, anytime, on stage. Can she act? Check. Dance? Check. Wise-crack Check. Tap? Check. Deliver punch lines? Check. Be sexy and mesmerizing? Check.
York is a seasoned trouper and star of the stage—and television where she played Lucille Ball in “Lucy” and several movies as well. She knows her way around Cole Porter, that’s for sure, having played Reno twice before and the lead in the Cole Porter backstage musical about feuding Shakespearean stars, “Kiss Me Kate.”
In fact, “Anything Goes” resembles “Kate” in its show bizzy busy tropes, its vaudeville ticks and its absolutely fabulous songs, music and dancing. Bobby Van, Bob Fosse and Ann Miller were in the MGM movie version of “Kate” as were old pros James Whitmore and Keenan Wynn, urging the audience to “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” Bing Crosby, Mitzi Gaynor and Donald O’Connor starred in the movie version of “Anything Goes.”
It’s York who’s the real show in the production at the Kennedy Center. She puts every tough, gold-hearted, sassy dame you ever saw and won’t see again into her performance: a shoulder-whisper of Bacall, a breathy Monroe, a brassy dare-you-to-take-me-on Mae West. The big voice, the dynamo energy, the sexy head-of-the-parade walk, the knowing way with words, that’s probably all York.
You think this is easy: watch how she sort of glides almost casually into the “Anything Goes” number at the end of the second act, a number that’s like winning the lotto for those of us who get dizzy in the presence of tap. It builds and builds and multiplies and brings the curtain down like an unexpected kiss. Act two starts about ten minutes later and it’s “Blow Gabriel, Blow,” another powerhouse number featuring York/Sweeney, who’s a sort of slightly shady, glitzy gospel-preaching gold entrepreneur, in which Sweeney comes clean parading from church-wear to dazzling, slit shirt gown.
The two numbers stacked like that are the broadway version of a marathon, and York breaks through in style.
The rest is fizz, pure entertainment that Porter with his magic way with words and music turns into art. The stage at some time or another is filled with sailors, a crook on the lam named Moonfaced Martin, a Chinese convert with a yen for poker, the Angels, Sweeney dancers, Purity, Charity, Chastity and Virtue, who managed to embody the opposite qualities, a near-sighted rich tycoon, a young ingénue engaged to a twitty, slightly off British lord, named Evelyn Oakleigh, and Billy Crockett, a handsome but slightly pennyless Wall Streeter in love with the sweet ingénue Hope who’s more of an angel than the angels.
Chaos, disorganized, silly, naughty and nice ensues, if you’re interested in plot matters. Astaire-Rogers type dancing ensues. Pratfalls ensues. Song satisfaction ensues. Entertainment ensues.
If this is old fashioned, it has the peculiar of something just gone viral on YouTube. Thank York for that and Cole Porter, but also Josh Franklin for his insistent wooing as Billy Crocker, the graceful Alex Finke as the ingénue, Fred Applegate for having so much fun with Moonfaced Martin and Edward Staudenmeyer for having even more fun with Evelyn, oh lord, Oakleigh.
“Anything Goes” runs through July 7 at at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House.