DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - As with any romantic musical comedy, Anything Goes connects like-minded lovers searching for a happy ending — along with a few fun dances.
In the version of the show opened at the Ahmanson Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles last week, however, the most exciting pairing is Rachel York and the music of Cole Porter. York’s sassy, brassy style and booming voice have always been more suited to the 1930s, while Porter’s tongue-tripping, complex lyrics were decades ahead of their time. They stood without peer until Stephen Sondheim’s 1970s heyday.
Like any good couple, York’s voice and Porter’s songs bring out the best in each other. They dominate the revival of Anything Goes that runs through Jan. 6 as part of its national tour after a successful Broadway turn.
Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, the rousing and charming musical, which has undergone several facelifts, is probably fresher today than at any time in its nearly 80-year history. Much of the credit for that goes to York.
Anything Goes had a rocky beginning in 1934. The script by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton was considered problematic from the get-go. Rewrites were executed by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse.
In 1987, Crouse’s son Timothy collaborated with John Weidman to make more sense out of the convoluted plot. There still are plenty of cornball jokes and the ending remains slapdash, but none of that matters when the one constant is Porter.
Most of the songs included in the 1934 version remain, along with a few Porter pieces first used in other shows, which fit neatly into the plot.
One of the original, and strongest, offerings is the show opener “I Get a Kick Out of You.” Reno Sweeney (York), an evangelist turned nightclub entertainer, laments that she would like more than a friendship with her longtime pal Billy Crocker (Erich Bergen).
Billy, though, is in love with Hope Harcourt (Alex Finke), with whom he spent one memorable night.
The problem is that Hope is leaving on the S.S. American for London. She has agreed to marry English stuffed shirt Evelyn Oakleigh (Edward Staudenmayer).
Billy opts to stow away on the ship, receiving a passport from Moonface Martin (Fred Applegate), a gangster posing as a minister.
The Porter hits include “You’re the Top,” “Friendship” and “It’s De-lovely,” and all display the composer’s skill at turning a phrase. The best example is the title number, which includes the rapid-fire delivery of lyrics such as, “The world has gone mad today/And good’s bad today/And black’s white today/And day’s night today/When most guys today/That women prize today/Are just silly gigolos.”
York leads this first-act finale, which Marshall transforms into a complex, high-energy synchronized tap dance with most of the cast.
The second act has a showstopper in “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.” It’s another number featuring — who else? — York, and captures the spirit of a big tent revival.
It’s no surprise that York knows the role so well. She appeared as Reno Sweeney in a previous production by L.A.’s Reprise Theatre Company. If anything, she brings more sophistication to Reno this time, and her voice has an even smokier quality. She’s consistently able to sell the laugh lines with her willingness to accept as normal even the craziest situations.
The other laugh-getter is Applegate, whose Moonface is a deft con man. His quick delivery turns even the groaners into winners.
Marshall has retained the 1930s look through the simple ship set design by Derek McLane and the elegant costumes from Martin Pakledinaz. Clean and opulent typifies the Great Depression era of escapist entertainment.
Better known as a choreographer, Marshall echoes steps devised by Fred Astaire and his collaborator Hermes Pan, in particular the sultry dance set to “Easy to Love.” It resembles a famous Astaire-Ginger Rogers number from the movie Top Hat.
Despite borrowing from the past, Marshall maintains a modern take. The entire cast is on the same page when it comes to metaphorically winking at the audience. It’s as if they acknowledge the story’s absurdity, but everyone agrees that they are in the business of having fun.
No one is going to mistake Anything Goes for high-concept entertainment. At the same time, the show’s current popularity is proof that there’s a desire for a musical that is strictly about having a good time.
Anything Goes runs through Jan. 6, 2013, at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., (213) 628-2772 or centertheatregroup.org.
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2012