WASHINGTON, D.C. – If the country’s divisive politics has you yearning for something more uplifting, then check out Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” at Arena Stage.
With stellar music, acting and choreography, this gold standard musical gets a joyous reinvention in the capable hands of artistic director Molly Smith. Through casting, interpretation and line change strategies, this depression-era hit uses a super talented and diverse cast to create an entertaining evening that will have you exiting the theater beaming.
Written in 1934, Porter’s original production featured mostly all white actors in the leading roles and included two Asian-American roles that were racially insensitive. In addition, the script contained lines that would be deemed today as racist.
To their credit, Smith and her team boldly tackled these issues in the 1987 book revision, creating a truer reflection of the face of America today aboard the transatlantic cruise ship S.S. American. On board are Bill Crocker (Corbin Bleu), a stowaway yearning for the beautiful Hope Harcourt (Lisa Helmi Johanson), soon-to-be engaged to the Englishman Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Jimmy Ray Bennett). Also onboard are the night-club singer/ turned evangelist Reno Sweeney (Soara-Joye Ross); Billy’s boss, Elisha Whitney, (Thomas Adrian Simpson); mobster Moonface Martin (Stephen DeRosa; his moll Erma (Maria Rizzo); and Harcourt’s mother (Lisa Tejero).
Bleu, a runner-up on Season 17 of “Dancing with the Stars,” as Billy Crocker is a tour de force in the role, tenderly singing such songs as “You are So Easy to Love” and tap dancing up a storm ala Gene Kelly in “De-Lovely” with Hope.
Johanson is as delicate as a flower and has the perfect soprano voice for “Good-bye, Little Dream,” while Ross, in a duet with Bleu, is electric in “You’re the Top.” Accompanied by her “angels” (back-up singers), she brings down the house on “Anything Goes” and on “Blow Gabriel Blow,” commanding the stage in one gorgeous costume after another, courtesy of costume designer Alejo Vietti.
As Lord Evelyn, Bennett is delightful as he attempts to speak American slang, (“You’re the rat’s pajamas”) and had the audience roaring with his sultry, comic dancing in “The Gypsy in Me.” DeRosa as mobster Martin/Public Enemy Number 13 is a hoot in his delivery of “Be Like the Bluebird,” while Rizzo shines with her sailor-slaying number, “Buddy Beware.”
Also adding to the comic silliness is Simpson as an eight-martini drinking Yale man and Tejero as Hope’s gold-digging mother who carries a real-life pooch onstage. Jonathan Holmes is funny as the celebrity-obsessed ship’s captain who is delighted to learn that there are mobsters onboard, particularly when he believes that Billy is Public Enemy Number One.
“Anything Goes” is mounted in the Arena Stage’s Fichandler Stage, and the theater in the round space wonderfully works for Ken McDonald’s cruise ship set. Through the use of moveable set pieces, staircases are moved about and a motorized stage lift creates levels that raise and lower, simulating ocean berths, a brig and a stage where Ross sings and dances several feet high above the audience.
The space equally works for choreographer Parker Esse’s spectacular dance numbers, and some of the show’s most thrilling moments are when the stage is full of dancers tapping away. An example is when Reno and her four “angels” dance in sync on “Anything Goes,” later joined by four of the ship’s sailors.
On Opening Night, music director Paul Sportelli ably conducted a nine-piece band that sounded like a full orchestra and Daniel Erdberg’s sound design made each song in the Fichandler crystal clear.
“Anything Goes” is a throwback to a time where Depression Era audiences were obsessed with mobsters, celebrities, scandals and juicy gossip. That said, don’t look for any consciousness raising in this two hour show. But if you’re looking for a fun night out, filled with incredible acting, music and dancing, this is definitely the hot ticket in town.