Times have changed, as the titular number from Anything Goes attests, and modern audiences prefer musicals with an innovative form or an unexpected genre twist, if they prefer them at all. Anything Goes premiered in 1934, in the midst of the Great Depression, and served up pure escapism with its stunning tap choreography, jazzy numbers, and peppy comedy. Arena Stage’s production of Cole Porter’s all-time great musical is a reminder of what makes those old shows timelessly entertaining.
People claim to not like musicals because nobody in real life bursts into song and dance while walking down the street. Realism is hardly the point of Anything Goes, which is about as grounded as an episode of Looney Tunes, and just as fun and zany. The show follows the foibles of the passengers traveling from New York to London on the SS American, among them a machine gun-toting mobster, Christian “converts” who’d rather shoot dice, an evangelist-turned-nightclub singer, a choir of angels, a debutante and her mother, a drunken stockbroker, an Englishman with a flimsy grasp on American slang, and a dog wearing a life jacket.
All of these assorted characters appear to be thoroughly enjoying themselves, and each of them works to milk their laughs and stand out among a crowded bench of talent. Nowhere is this more evident than the number “Friendship,” sung by old pals Reno Sweeney (Soara-Joye Ross) and gangster Moonface Martin (Stephen DeRosa), in which the pair seems to be just barely containing their giggles as they banter with the crowd and toss out groan-inducing one liners with increasing eagerness. These two are the anchors of the show, and generate sparks no matter who they share a scene with, but the rest of the cast more than holds their own.
D.C. audiences have every right to be wary of the stars who come from out of town with a handful of TV guest spots to their name, but despite the fact that Arena Stage has heavily played up the casting of High School Musical’s Corbin Bleu, he is more than up to the part of leading man and lovable scamp Billy Crocker. Jimmy Ray Bennett reliably earns laughs with his line readings as the somewhat daffy Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, and Maria Rizzo brings the perfect brassy sensibility to mob girlfriend Erma. Lisa Helmi Johanson’s portrayal of debutante Hope Harcourt is sweetly sincere, and her vocals help to elevate a part that can sometimes fall into humdrum girlfriend territory.
Arena’s in-the-round format works exceptionally well for this show, with the ship’s crew frequently doubling as stagehands, constantly working in the periphery just as real sailors would. The set pieces being spun around give the sense of being seabound and in constant motion. An elevated platform occasionally emerges from the floor to change the scenery, and is used to cleverly dramatic effect throughout. Conductor and Music Director Paul Sportelli even peers out from the submerged orchestra pit via a hole in the stage, looking every bit like a skipper in a crow’s nest.
The best part of the show is of course the songs themselves. In Anything Goes, Porter introduced a whole heap of classics to the Great American Songbook, and even musical haters will already know and secretly enjoy numbers like “You’re the Top,” “It’s De-Lovely,” and “I Get a Kick Out of You.” The company gamely commits to each number, enunciating every last line of Porter’s quippy, tongue-twisting dialogue so the jokes pop, and executing each shuffle and tap with aplomb. Even if you’re somehow unfamiliar with these when you enter, it’s practically a guarantee that audience members will find themselves tapping their toes to the title number while they’re doing the dishes days later.
1101 6th St. SW. $51–$105. (202) 488-3300. arenastage.org.