To say that Chita Rivera defies all the laws of nature and the passage of time could well be the understatement of the new millennium. All of this seems to be the case based on her dazzling performance as Reno Sweeney in the sparkling new production of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. Directed with snap and assurance by Lee Roy Reams, with terrific choreography by Michael Lichtefeld and Joe Bowerman, Anything Goes sparkles with top-notch performances from a first-rate cast of Broadway professionals.
The show, as if you didn’t know, is set on a cruise ship bound for England. Billy Crocker, having made the decision to stow away to win the love of Hope Harcourt (instead of going back to Wall Street to make a critical stock sale for his boss), is mistaken for Public Enemy #1 and thus becomes a celebrity aboard ship. Aided by his longtime friend, the entertainer Reno Sweeney, as well as by Public Enemy #13 (named Moonface Martin) and Public Enemy #1’s girlfriend, Erma, Billy has to win Hope away from her stodgy fiancée, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, while avoiding discovery as a imposter and the wrath of his boss. Can he do it? Of course. But with a score filled with some of Cole Porter’s most beautiful and hummable classics, who even cares?!
This production could easily be retitled Anything Chita, based on Rivera’s amazing portrayal. Truly, the lady looks like a million dollars–and not a day over 40. Though her singing voice is just beginning to show the signs of her age, Rivera throws herself into the role and carries the audience away with the energy, enthusiasm, and star quality that have been her hallmarks throughout her 50-year show business career. Her comic timing has never been more on-target; she delivers Reno’s zingy one-liners with the confidence that only a lifetime in the theater can bring. Consequently, Rivera has the audience eating out of the palm of her hand. Wearing one breathtaking costume (designed by Liz Covey) after another, she is a force of nature as she puts her own spin on such timeless Porter songs as “I Get A Kick Out of You,” “Anything Goes,” and “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” while dancing up a storm. To see Rivera tapping away in front of a line of sailors or being tossed in the air before landing on a table is astonishing, and a testament to her discipline in keeping herself in tip-top shape.
Happily, she receives superb support from her co-stars. As Billy Crocker, George Dvorsky turns in a winning performance. Long known for his beautiful voice, Dvorsky proves he can more than hold his own as an actor, a dancer, and a comedian; he wears a series of disguises and employs a variety of character voices as he leads the mayhem on-stage. Vocally, Dvorsky has never sounded better, and his performances of “Easy to Love” and “All Through the Night” (with the lovely and talented Stacey Logan as Hope Harcourt) are highlights of the show.
Patrick Quinn is a scream as Hope’s fiancé, Lord Evelyn, who (naturally!) falls madly in love with Reno before the curtain falls. Quinn is equal parts buffoon and stuffed shirt as he falls under Reno’s spell while singing “The Gypsy in Me” (although this reviewer still misses “Let’s Misbehave” from earlier incarnations of the show). It’s not every man who can boast of having seduced Chita Rivera while wearing boxer shorts and carrying a sword, but Quinn can now make that claim with pride.
Rounding out the cast are the formidable Bruce Adler as Moonface Martin and the effervescent Colleen Hawks as his sidekick, Erma. Adler’s great comic timing and shameless mugging had the audience in stitches from the top of the show. His addition (or was it Reams’ idea?) of several Borscht belt jokes into the script is welcome, and his performance of “Be Like the Bluebird” is a treat. Though Hawks initially relies on the traditional dumb-platinum-blonde stereotype for her portrayal of Erma, she comes into her own during her eleven o’clock number, “Buddie, Beware,” in which she displays a powerful singing voice and a limberness that even Rivera would envy.
Delicious performances also come from Ryan Hilliard as Elisha J. Whitney (Billy’s alcoholic boss) and Eleanor Glockner as Mrs. Evangeline Harcourt (Hope’s overbearing mother). Reams and his production team keep the show moving briskly and effortlessly while never forgetting to place the emphasis on fun, and on that classic Porter score. Then, of course, there is Chita Rivera–the most delightful, delicious, delovely diva of them all.