Sterling revival of 'Anything Goes' lights up Kennedy Center

You may subscribe to the notion that American musicals prior to the arrival of Rodgers and Hammerstein in the 1940s are hardly worth putting back on the stage, since they're just gussied-up revues, heavy on song, dance and stale vaudeville jokes, short on artistic substance.

It will be much harder holding onto such thinking if you catch the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of "Anything Goes" currently at the Kennedy Center as part of a national tour. And catch it you should. It's delicious, delirious and, yes (might as well get this cheap reference out of the way quickly), de-lovely.

The 1934 musical, with a breezy, sophisticated score by Cole Porter, has not just been dusted off, but shaken and stirred to produce a potent concoction that hits the spot.

So, OK, the plot is a little thin, but there are still some good nautical miles left in this wacky tale about a shipload of colorful characters heading to Europe -- stock brokers; a gangster in clerical disguise; an English lord and an American mother determined to get her daughter hitched to him.

And it's not as if we, in our sophisticated age, cannot relate to the book's principal satiric target -- the way the public turns bad guys into celebrities. 

That book, originally by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton and rejiggered by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse just before the 1934 premiere, was revised in 1987 by Timothy Crouse (Russel's son) and John Weidman. Their version, which includes some re-orderings and well-chosen substitutions of songs, is the one Roundabout used for this revival, which opened on Broadway in 2011 and ran for more than a year.

The beautiful thing about "Anything Goes," directed and choreographed with panache by Kathleen Marshall, is that it acts proudly like a vintage show -- no hint of deconstruction here -- but never comes across as dusty or faded. Even the most obvious jokes and inevitable plot-turns have a fresh taste.

The whole thing zaps you back to a happier time and place right from the orchestra's first crackling notes of the overture (Depression -- what Depression?), and the spell just lasts and lasts.

The plot gets its central propulsion from the role of sassy evangelist-turned-entertainer Reno Sweeney -- the role created for Ethel Merman, she of the famous brass lungs. Rachel York triumphs in the assignment, giving Reno a sexy dash of Mae West and a burst of Eve Arden as she cracks wise and witty ("Lead me beside distilled waters" is Reno's way of asking the way to the ship's bar).

York is also a terrific singer and hoofer. She sculpts "I Get a Kick Out of You" with a classy touch and soars through "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" (the way everyone on stage gets pulled into this sizzling production number provides one of the show's visual and sonic highs).

Two of the score's best duets also underline York's great value to the venture -- "You're the Top," partnered with the amiable, sure-footed Josh Franklin as Billy Crocker, the Wall Street worker who stows away on the ship to chase the woman of his dreams, oblivious to Reno's own interest in him; and "Friendship," delectably delivered with Fred Applegate, who does a funny, winning turn as the on-the-lam Moonface Martin, who finds a collegial pal in Reno.

Those witty duets provide particularly engaging examples of how the production brings Porter's inspired lyrics into sharp focus. In each case, the singers execute stage business that illustrates clever imagery in the words -- York leaning over for a split second as she sings the line "you're the Tower of Pisa," for example.

I hate to describe such things, because they probably sound silly or blatant in the telling, but they add immeasurably to the fun and are carried out by the performers with an effortless effervescence.   

Among other notable portrayals in cast: Edward Staudenmayer as Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, whose attempt to master American slang sends the bon no's flying (the actor also has field day with the droll song "The Gypsy in Me" in Act 2); Dennis Kelly as fond-of-a-drink broker Elisha Whitney; and Joyce Chittick as Moonface Martin's sailor-hungry sidekick.

Just about the only weak link in the ensemble is Alex Finke as Billy's idol, Hope, but she makes up for bland acting with a tenderly sung "Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye."

Derek McLane's deco set, framed with a porthole-inspired proscenium curtain, and Howell Binkley's prismatic lighting keep the production sailing along smoothly. Martin Pakledinaz's lively costumes are another plus.

Jay Alger, sporting nautical attire, conducts a hot ensemble in the pit that brings out every sparkle in the orchestration (the rousing entr'acte gives principal trumpet Fred Irby III a chance to get in some brilliant licks).

In short, "Anything Goes" is just -- you knew this was coming -- "oh, so easy to love."

The production runs through July 7

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