It’s 1934, but it could easily be today. On the SS America bound from New York to London, most of the passengers are driven by profit, obsessed with status, and enthralled by celebrity. But somewhere deep down, all they really want is to fall in love and have a fabulous time. At Arena Stage, for almost three glorious hours, they do, and so does the thoroughly delighted audience of “Anything Goes.”
Director Molly Smith has created an epic celebration of bawdy humor, vaudevillian shtick, and the absolute best of Cole Porter’s music. If songs like “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “It’s De-Lovely,” and “All Through the Night” aren’t already embedded in your consciousness, they will be by the evening’s end when you leave the theater humming an unforgettable tune.
Music director Paul Sportelli opens the show with an overture, flawlessly performed by an incredibly tight band of just nine musicians. From there, the sounds of musical instruments, voices, and tapping feet coalesce in ways that only a composer like Porter could envision and a choreographer like Arena’s miraculous Parker Esse could execute. “The rhythms, the dynamic shifts within the music, lend themselves to percussive feet,” Esse notes. “There’s stop-time sections built into the music the way it’s been scored, so the music will pull out, and then feet become the instrument.”
Nowhere is this phenomenon more stirring than in the literally show-stopping production number, “Anything Goes,” that brings the cheering audience to its feet for five minutes before the intermission. The full cast’s thunderous tapping and stomping, synchronized with the band’s energetic melody and overlaid with the towering vocals of Soara-Joye Ross, are pure exhilaration.
Backed by a spirited ensemble, Ross and Corbin Bleu are the heart and soul of the show, occupying center stage almost continuously save for a few short breaks to catch their breath. Ross’ astonishing voice soars to the rafters while Bleu (a veteran of the “High School Musical” films, Dancing With the Stars, and several Broadway productions) performs riveting dance moves that span ballet, tap, and jazz.
A plot stoked by mistaken identity and unrequited love frames all this song and dance. Ross plays Reno Sweeney, an evangelist turned nightclub singer. She’s crazy about her best friend Billy Crocker, portrayed by Bleu, but he’s desperately in love with Hope Harcourt (Lisa Helmi Johanson). Hope is smitten with Billy, too, but her mother insists that Hope secure their finances by marrying the wealthy Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Jimmy Ray Bennett), who, incidentally, has a thing for Reno. Toss Billy’s Wall Street broker boss, a gangster and his moll, a couple of gamblers, and a host of sailors and chorus girls into the mix; then put them all on a ship and watch the plot twists and high jinks unfold.
Working with a book that was gently updated from the original for the show’s 1987 revival, the cast clearly relishes old-fashioned comedy. As “public enemy number 13” Moonface Martin, Stephen DeRosa continually drops corny puns, adopts badly improvised accents, and tells groan-inducing jokes to marvelous effect. And as the scandalously alluring Erma, Maria Rizzo is in her element, showcasing her gift for delivering snappy comebacks and commanding the stage with a sassy strut.
The comedy escalates from amusing to hilarious when Bennett performs “The Gypsy in Me,” morphing from the repressed Lord Oakleigh into a love-starved lothario with a secret past. His outrageous antics are perfectly complemented and almost eclipsed by Ross’ priceless response, vacillating from confusion and slight disgust to irresistible attraction and unfettered desire as she falls under Bennett’s weird spell.
Set designer Ken MacDonald has beautifully evoked the SS America, from the battered floorboards to the maritime flags strewn overhead. The set features an ingenious central platform that periodically rises from beneath the stage, exposing the cabins and jail cells in the bowels of the ship where various characters hatch their schemes. And Alejo Vietti’s lavish costumes embody the sartorial elegance of a lost era, when men always sported dapper suits and women never left home without a hat.
Thanks to this blend of musical and visual pizzazz, cruising back to 1934 has never been more de-lovely.
Anything Goes will be performed at Arena’s Fichlander Stage through Dec. 23.
Barbara Wells is a writer and editor for Reingold, a social marketing communications firm. She and her husband live on Capitol Hill.