Arts Desk

Anything Goes at Kennedy Center, Reviewed

It's no coincidence that the giddily slender plot of Anything Goes plays like a particularly breezy episode of Frasier: Joe Keenan, that sitcom's best and most consistent writer, has always acknowledged his debt to P.G. Wodehouse, master farceur and co-author of the original Anything Goes story. Wodehouse and his collaborators (there was one initially, then two more to rewrite the thing, then two more on a revival decades later) built an airy but still-sturdy scaffolding of mistaken identity, happy coincidence, and conveniently dumb luck—all on board a '30s luxury liner carrying a motley crew of dreamers and schemers  from New York to London—on which to hang the gossamer songs of that most effortlessly elegant of musical-theater composers. That of course would be Cole Porter, whose louche appreciation for high life and low jinks made him more or less the best imaginable match for Wodehouse's naughtily upper-crust sensibilities.

In the loose, easy-going, happy-making tour that’s on at the Kennedy Center Opera House, Rachel York plays nightclub chanteuse Reno Sweeney, a starring role written for Ethel Merman. Her toasted-honey mezzo couldn't be less like Merman's brazen belt—or the love-me-dammit vocal swagger of Patti LuPone, who anchored the 1987 revival that introduced this version and its orchestrations—and as the evening progresses, it turns out that's just fine. York lays down a lush, life's-a-party vibe from the first bars of "I Get a Kick Out of You," lopes through the book scenes with a seen-it-before worldliness that stays (quite rightly) on the engaging side of jadedness, and hoofs it energetically through the splashy first-act finale that deploys 20-odd ensemble members across the three levels of Derek McLane's brass-on-white ocean-liner set.

Will you know who'll pair off with whom from the moment the characters are introduced? Sure you will. Will you hear some of those vaudeville-broad punchlines coming before their set-ups heave themselves over the horizon? Doubtless. But you'll hardly mind, not as long as you're on board with York and her equally game colleagues—notably Fred Applegate as the affable gangster Moonface Martin, Josh Franklin as romantic lead Billy Crocker, Dennis Kelly as whiskey-addled Wall Street titan Elisha Whitney, and especially Joyce Chittick as Moon's pert firecracker of a moll, Erma, who makes no bones about her appreciation for the S.S. America's handsome complement of tight-trousered sailors, and sends them into any number of pop-eyed uproars over the course of the evening.

There's no arguing, really, with what Anything Goes is—a show designed decades ago to entertain that old-schooliest Broadway Everypatron, the Tired Businessman. It's built from the DNA up to take the wrinkle out of his weary brow, to make him forget his workaday cares, to coax him (and his distaff colleagues, now that we've sailed on into the 21st century) back to something like cheerfulness. But it's a peerlessly pedigreed specimen of that genre, and what makes Kathleen Marshall's staging so thoroughly enjoyable is that it doesn't mind being, wholeheartedly, a first-class bit of fun.

The show runs to July 7 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. $25-$115.

Photo by Joan Marcus

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