These days, we escape the downer of economic recession with reality TV, Angry Birds, and an obsessive attachment to Facebook. But back in the dreary depths of the 1930s, they knew how to do their escapism in style: with swashbuckling adventures and Busby Berkeley’s choreography on the big screen, and flashy Broadway musicals penned by the likes of Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwins, and Cole Porter.
Fortunately for us, there’s an opportunity to enjoy the Depression-era version of turning-our-backs-on-reality with the current run of "Anything Goes" one of Cole Porter’s most successful and enjoyable Broadway hits.
Winner of the 2011 Tony Award for Best Revival and Best Choreography (and also for Best Actress in a Musical for original cast member Sutton Foster), "Anything Goes" embarked on its US national tour in October 2012, and opened in San Francisco at the Golden Gate Theater on Jan. 8.
There, a packed-to-the-gills theater was treated to an exuberant evening of comic high-jinx, sumptuous song-and-dance, gorgeously styled costumes, and functional but eye-catching sets.
Indeed, Director Kathleen Marshall has performed a nice balancing act--taking audiences for a nostalgic dip into a bygone era while also playing to modern sensibilities without overdoing the updates. (Although it’s unfortunate that neither she nor the writers of this current version found it in themselves to take out the clumsy and offensive 1930’s Asian stereotypes.)
The story was originally developed by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, then polished up prior to its 1934 opening by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse. The current version has been further buffed by John Weidman and Crouse’s son, Timothy.
Still, the plot is so thin it’s virtually translucent and from the opening number -- nightclub singer Reno Sweeney (Rachel York) confessing her unrequited romantic admiration to Billy Crocker (Erich Bergen) in "I get a kick out of you,"--we are never in doubt that everything will turn out just swell.
This lack of depth or plot surprise is forgivable, however, because, like the transatlantic liner upon which most of the action takes place, the story is merely a vehicle taking the characters from point A to B.
Billy likes Reno well enough, but his heart lies elsewhere since he’s fallen in love with debutante Hope Harcourt (Alex Finke). In a desperate attempt to prevent her marriage to her fiancé, buffoonish English aristocrat Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Edward Staudenmayer), Billy stows away on the ship that the betrothed pair and Hope’s mother (Sandra Shipley) are traveling on.
The passenger list also includes a wanted gangster, Moonface Martin (Fred Applegate), who’s donned an unconvincing disguise as a man of the cloth and his pal, the lusty and attractive Erma (Joyce Chittick), who’s not averse to a grapple in a lifeboat with sailor or two... or three.
The other passengers have been lured aboard with promises of brushing shoulders with a crowd of celebrities. But when it turns out there’s no one of much renown among them, the captain, mistaking Billy for a gangster pal of Moonface, elevates him to celebrity status on ship.
Unfortunately for Billy, the acclaim doesn’t last long. He’s confined to the brig and, sensing a threat to her daughter’s (and her own) financially secure future, Hope’s mother arranges a quickie wedding for Hope and her aristocrat fiancé aboard.
Along the way, there’s much at which to laugh and marvel. As Reno, Rachel York is quite remarkable, making the stage zing with her deliciously rich voice and unrelenting sex appeal, evoking latter-day sirens like Joan Crawford, Mae West, and Rita Hayworth.
Erich Bergen finesses the role of Billy (a rather bland character who could quite easily sink this seafaring musical) with such skill that he almost matches York’s stage presence and garners the audience’s sympathy at every turn.
As Moonface and Erma, Fred Applegate and Joyce Chittick vie for comic star turn--Applegate embodying the hapless but likeable criminal and Chittick grabbing the limelight as the kind and indiscriminately flirtatious moll.
Relative newcomer Alex Finke makes a delightful and captivating Hope Harcourt who holds her own alongside a much more experienced cast, while Dennis Kelly (as Billy’s boss, Elisha Whitney) and Sandra Shipley plump up the cast nicely and offer some romantic intrigue of their own.
Of course, it’s Cole Porter’s songs that make it all worth watching. But some are more memorable than others and the first act has plenty: Berger and York’s performance of "You’re the Top" is among them, as are two other duets (York and Applegate singing "Friendship" and Berger and Finke’s charming rendition of "It’s De-lovely.)
A laugh-out-loud performance of "The Gypsy in Me" by Staudenmayer provides one of the highlights of the less musically compelling second act. But the undoubted standout of the show is "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" a gospel-inspired number in which the passengers and crew join Reno and her gang of girl singers to confess their (many) sins.
While the rest of the second act can’t match the glittering heights of this number, it still offers more than a few treats. Indeed, by the end of the evening, you’ll find yourself utterly transported.
It’s so much fun, in fact, that before you turn on "Keeping up with the Kardashians" or play another game of Angry Birds, you’ll have to spread the news on your Facebook page.
"Anything Goes" runs through Feb. 3 at the Golden Gate Theater at 1 Taylor Street in San Francisco. For more information and tickets, visit the theater’s website. You can also find out more information about the national tour dates of "Anything Goes" at www.anythinggoesontour.com.