A young person examining the lyrics of Cole Porter’s 1934 musical “Anything Goes” might react in the same way as her great-grandmother would to the lyrics of a contemporary rap song (bad words aside).
Porter’s verses are a repository of 1930s popular culture. In just one song, “You’re the Top,” he manages to squeeze in specific references to Greta Garbo, Mahatma Gandhi, Calvin Coolidge, Vincent Youmans, Jimmy Durante, Lady Astor and Mae West.
I imagine that’s one reason this musical remains terribly popular with high school teachers and principals; it’s a history lesson wrapped in the fun of putting on a show. (“Those musical theater kiddies won’t even know it’s educational!”)
Likely, another reason for its popularity is the rudimentary scenic design, square and shipshape, that varies little from production to production. The two-level exterior deck of a cruise ship functions mainly as a hive of activity, where the purpose of doors, stairs and gangways is just to lend variety to the entrances and exits.
A few extra bells and whistles, almost literally, and some puffing smokestacks seem to be the only real scenic improvements in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Broadway revival of “Anything Goes,” running through Sunday at the Orpheum theater.
If you’ve never cared for the musical in previous avatars, the look of this revival won’t change your mind about it.
Upon this vintage set, director Kathleen Marshall (also of Broadway’s “The Pajama Game” and “Grease”) stages a vintage production that, at times, seems authentic to a fault — a starchy, Spartan staging that treats each Porter tune with the reverence of jewelry in a display case. The dance breaks are faithful to the period — lovely, elegant couples dancing in the vein of Astaire and Rogers. The snazzy tap numbers are more fun the bigger they get, but that’s true in almost every Broadway musical.
What really pops in this production are the arrangements — or at least, the orchestra’s playing under conductor Jay Alger. For those who appreciate a period sound to go with a period performance, the music keeps Porter in the right decade.
The excellent Rachel York, in the lead role of nightclub singer Reno Sweeney, is certainly the best part about “Anything Goes.” Tall, leggy and with a voice that has just enough sultriness to make you see why Porter’s music still feels right at home in jazz clubs, York’s golden grandeur makes it slightly harder to like the lead male character, Billy Crocker (Josh Franklin), who rejects her for a young debutante engaged to another man.
Though Billy and Reno remain friends throughout the show, it’s easy to doubt his competence, and certainly his taste.
But then, “Anything Goes” is an accurate title for this nautical farce that involves gangsters, disguises, sailors and silly accents. It’s a young performer’s dream show — and the Roundabout Theatre offers the perfect template for the next generation of actors.
Performances continue at 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 6 p.m. Sunday at the Orpheum theater, 203 South Main. Tickets are $15-$90. Call 901-525-3000.