‘Anything Goes’ Arrives in SF

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The look, plot, dialogue, jokes and even the orchestral accompaniment of “Anything Goes” could easily seem dated. In Cole Porter’s famed 1934 musical, there’s a bit about Arrow shirt collars, Garbo’s salary and Mae West — references that have since gone the way of the cat’s pajamas. But, when you walk into the palatial setting of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre and see the vitality of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival, you realize how far from old-fashioned and clunky this ocean liner-sized show truly is.

One of the reasons for this refreshed sensibility is the casting. There’s a youthful ardor to be found amid the personalities of “Anything Goes” — a sense of unyielding positivity and optimism encapsulated by one of the younger castmates, Alex Finke. This is her first foray into Broadway. As a recent college grad from the University of Michigan and with only some regional theater under her belt, Finke booked the national tour after a college showcase in New York. “It’s such a fun, silly show and we’re all just having a blast up there doing it,” she said over the phone. “For me, it hasn’t felt like something I’ve had to work hard to keep fresh.”

Finke plays Hope Harcourt — a young woman who, like the actress, finds herself in the midst of an elaborate production. Harcourt is an attractive heiress who happens to be the object of affection of the charming-yet-impressionable Billy Crocker. Billy Crocker becomes the object of affection of the stunning songstress and nightclub Evangelist Reno Sweeney. Crocker sneaks onto a luxury ship to follow his beloved. Sweeney is there with her entourage of monochromatic maidens. And, hidden in the corridors and clandestine quarters of the ship is the notorious criminal, “Moonface” Martin. Well, not so notorious. He’s only public enemy number 13. Naturally, identities are mistaken, hijinks ensue, love is found in unexpected places and joy is to be had by the characters, the cast and the audience.

It’s an exhausting endeavor — entertaining, but filled to the brim with zippy one-liners, complex musical numbers and an intricate plot of twists and turns. What keeps this production, directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, additionally captivating and affective is the chemistry onstage. Throughout the complicated set changes and the zing-a-minute pace, it is the magnetic dynamism of both seasoned professionals like Rachel York, who plays the seductive Sweeney with both physical and emotional aplomb, and up-and-comers like Erich Bergen, as the beguiling Billy Crocker, that keep this long-enduring show animated.

From the minute the lights dim and the score begins, you can sense the enthusiastic commitment of all those involved, from the actors to the orchestra conductor, Jay Alger, who donned a ship captain’s uniform in theme with the show. “We’ve done the show so many times now, that it’s almost just part of you,” Finke said. This love and personal dedication is clear in the show-stopping numbers such as the immaculate “Anything Goes” tap sequence, headed by York. But, it’s also present in the finer details. The way Bergen slyly smirks, the distinctive nails-on-chalkboard screech from Joyce Chittick as gangster gal pal Erma and the animalistic eccentricity of Edward Staudenmayer as Sir Evelyn Oakleigh make this production more than just another Cole Porter rehash. They make it unique.

When I spoke to Finke on the phone, I had yet to see the show. I was hesitant and skeptical. “Anything Goes” is not only a staple of the American musical theater canon, but also, as Finke put it, “embedded in the popular culture.” This production does Porter and this statement justice. It embeds itself in your memory.

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