A de-lovely production of “Anything Goes”
The plot is ridiculous, the jokes are mostly cornball, the acting and staging are very good, the songs are often great, and the singing and dancing are wonderful — which more or less sums up the production of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes now at Arena Stage.
The revival of the original 1930s musical features several songs from the Great American Songbook, including “I Get a Kick Out of You,” ”You’re the Top,” “Easy to Love,” ”It’s De-Lovely” and, of course, the rousing, wow-zing title song performed by the entire cast of sailors, passengers, gangsters, gamblers, molls, stowaways, entertainers, stuffy Englishmen, uptight matrons and sort-of loose showgirls aboard the SS American as the liner makes its New York-to-London ocean crossing.
Actually, the 19 cast members — and one small dog — that move and groove on Arena’s in-the-round Fichandler Stage make it seem like a Busby Berkeley cast of, well, dozens in that wonderful “Anything Goes” ensemble number.
Tap dancing up a storm and calmly singing the true meaning of the words (as thin-voiced Fred Astaire and soft-voiced Gene Kelly always did) is Corbin Bleu, who the audience can’t wait to have appear on the ship’s deck (or in a cabin or the brig) for his musical numbers.
Bleu, who has numerous film and TV acting credits and who plays stowaway Billy Crocker (more on the over-the-top plot later), surely is “the top” as a musical performer.
Not coincidentally, he sings that pop classic (“You’re the Top”) with Soara-Joye Ross, who plays nightclub entertainer Reno Sweeney (Ethel Merman’s role in the original). Co-star Ms. Ross gives a more jazz feel than a belting wail to her other numbers (“I Get a Kick Out of You,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow”) as she carries with good humor and warm feeling her crush on Billie.
Zany, convoluted story
The wacky plot: Billy Crocker, the lovesick assistant to wealthy Wall Street banker Elijah Whitney (a blustery Thomas Adrian Simpson), sneaks aboard the luxury liner (which also carries his boss to London) in his ongoing effort to woo his crush, Hope Harcourt (a sweet Lisa Helmi Johanson). Hope is soon to be married to stuffy British Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (a very winning Jimmy Ray Bennett).
Billy masquerades as a celebrity criminal after he obtains the passport of Public Enemy Number 1 from fellow traveler — Moonface Martin (disguised as a priest), who happens to be Public Enemy Number 13 (a wonderfully hammy Stephen DeRosa). Moonface is accompanied by his moll (a tough, brassy Maria Rizzo).
Also on board are Reno Sweeney and her backup singers (I don’t remember why, maybe a nightclub date overseas) and she woos Billy, then gracefully lets him go to gather his Hope, who realizes she has loved Billy all along.
Reno manages to find love and wealth with the jilted-stilted Brit, who realizes in the second act that he is not so stuffy with a rousing song and dance rendition of “The Gypsy in My Soul.”
Hope’s gold-digging mom (a scheming Lisa Tejero) has to console herself for her daughter’s real love by hugging her incredibly well-behaved Cheeky (a role shared on different nights by real life canines Maximillian Moonshine and Olly, both reportedly making their stage debuts).
The passengers and crew also include two Chinese gamblers posing as Christian converts (Julio Catano-Yee and Christopher Shin), and the ship’s celebrity obsessed captain (a joyfully inane Jonathan Holmes), who appears on deck every now and then to assure everyone that the ship is still afloat.
Molly Smith directs with creative aplomb the comings, goings and seldom standing stills, while managing the top-notch collaboration of choreographer Parker Esse, costume designer Alejo Vietti (some slick, satiny gowns), set designer Ken MacDonald (cabins and brigs and ship decks giving way to one another by sliding up and down on stage), and several other stage crafters.
Music director Paul Sortelli pops his head up on stage from time to time as he leads nine never-seen musicians in the overture and song-and-dance numbers.
A show with great pedigree
A little background for musical history buffs: Anything Goes debuted on Broadway in 1934. One of the original book’s authors was famous British humorist P.G. Wodehouse; the current book is by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman. The play has gone through several revivals and rewrites, two film versions and a TV production.
As noted above, the original Reno Sweeney was all-time Broadway belter Ethel Merman (she also did several revivals, one of the movies and the TV special), while Bing Crossly played Billy Crocker in both movies. The role was played on TV in 1954 by Frank Sinatra.
The current cast is scheduled to be aboard until the Dec. 23 docking. Show times vary, but include Tues. through Sat. nights, Sun. matinees at 2 p.m., and some weekday noon matinees.
Tickets are $41 to $105, with a 20 percent discount for veterans. To purchase tickets, call (202) 554-9066 or visit www.arena.org (handling fees apply).
A limited number of half-price tickets (Hottix) are sold for most performances. They go on sale 30 minutes before curtain and must be purchased in person at the sales office. Limit of two per person.
Arena Stage is located at 1101 6th St. SW, Washington, D.C. Parking at the theater’s garage is $20 in advance and $24 on a space-available basis the day of the performance. Metro’s Waterfront station on the Green Line is a block from the theater.