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Anything Goes in This Classic American Musical

Arena Stage mounts an effervescent production of Cole Porter's 1934 show.

Soara-Joye Ross and Corbin Bleu in a scene from Anything Goes, directed by Molly Smith, at Arena Stage.
(© Maria Baranova)

Anything Goes is a musical that has continued to win popular success and professional awards for its composer and lyricist, Cole Porter, since it was first produced on Broadway in 1934. There are many connections between Porter's America and the United States of 2018, where celebrity is an obsession, the stock market can skyrocket or plunge in the blink of an eye, and anyone will do almost anything for love. Arena Stage is acknowledging those connections in their new production of Anything Goes.

There have been many changes to the first book by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, which was originally revised by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Arena's version uses a book by Timothy Crouse (son of Russel) and John Weidman that brings new focus to the text and reestablishes its original score.

Anything Goes takes place aboard an ocean liner bound from New York to London in 1934. Onboard is evangelist-turned-nightclub-singer Reno Sweeney (Soara-Joye Ross), American heiress Hope Harcourt (Lisa Helmi Johanson), and Hope's mother (Lisa Tejero). Hope is engaged to the stuffy Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Jimmy Ray Bennett), though she is really in love with Billy Crocker (Corbin Bleu), a lowly broker and employee of Elisha Whitney (Thomas Simpson). Billy comes to the dock to bring papers to Whitney but sees Hope and doesn't get off the ship before it sails. In a subplot, the captain has heard that a gangster, Moonface Martin (Stephen DeRosa), has boarded the ship.

As the sexy and high-spirited Reno, Ross sets the upbeat tone for this show in her first number, "I Get a Kick Out of You." Her voice is lively and warm as she sings to Billy, acknowledging that she wants to be more than just friends. When Billy makes it clear that he has a crush on Hope, Reno proves what a truly good friend she will be, continuing to crack wise and look for romance while helping him snare his heiress.

Right from the start, Bleu comes across as a young man with a winning personality, waiting hand and foot on his demanding boss. When he first sings with Reno ("You're the Top"), he reveals his rich tenor. It's a very fast number, but Bleu enunciates clearly so not a delightful rhyme or syllable is lost. In his later numbers, Bleu proves his ability to croon with the best. But it is in his tap numbers where he truly shines. Jimmy Ray Bennett portrays Lord Oakleigh as more than a priggish aristocrat. In his first appearance, he indulges in some very funny physical comedy, and his solo "The Gypsy in Me" is a comic highlight of the show. DeRosa is also a figure of considerable fun as Moonface Martin. His duet with Reno ("Friendship") demonstrates his skill as a comedian and dancer. Johanson plays Hope as a lovely girl with the intelligence to fall in love at first sight with Billy. Her voice in "Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye" is sweet but substantial.

Director Molly Smith paces this production quickly, helped by the skilled, smooth choreography of Parker Esse. Ken MacDonald fills the circular Fichandler Stage with a minimal set, relying on props like deck chairs and a bar that can be wheeled onstage. Costume designer Alejo Vietti has captured all the glitter and style of evening clothes of 1934: tuxedos and silk and satin gowns (the latter of which are generously bejeweled). Paul Sportelli effectively conducts an accomplished orchestra of nine musicians.

Anything Goes is a witty show about opulence, romance, celebrity, and fame that carefully represents its original nutty plot, zipping from a serious true-love story to one-liners, burlesque, and slapstick comedy. And in between, it gives you sensational representations of some of Cole Porter's best work, in which he lovingly celebrates a world in which anything goes.

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