Star quality is alive and well at the UCLA Freud Playhouse. The Reprise! production of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” offers a performance by Rachel York that combines old-time magnetism with charisma, elegance and all-around talent. York’s crystal-clear voice, crack timing and dancing ability make her a logical current candidate for the title “first lady of the musical stage.” This electricity (seen in Broadway’s “City of Angels” and “Les Miserables” as well as the recent London version of “Kiss Me Kate”), along with first-rate “Kiss Me Kate” leading man Brent Barrett and an outstanding cast, turn “Anything Goes” into one of the season’s prime crowd-pleasers.
Although the first book was written for the 1934 Broadway show, this version is based on 1987’s Lincoln Center production by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman, which added “All Through the Night,” “Friendship” and “It’s De-Lovely” to the original score. The plot is pure farce, a powder-puff concoction that relies on wizards to breathe life into it.
Wizard No. 1 is director Glenn Casale, who brings a modern sparkle to old-fashioned characters. He sets up the story with tycoon Elisha Whitney (Fred Willard) about to sail for Europe and unaware that his employee Billy Crocker (Brent Barrett) has sneaked on board to pursue his dream girl, heiress Hope Harcourt (Anastasia Barzee). Billy’s pal entertainer Reno Sweeney (York) wants him to love her instead, but Billy — a stowaway — has to concentrate on hiding from the ship’s captain, assuming disguises that include posing as famous gangster Snake Eyes.
Hope adores Billy too but is engaged to stuffy Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Larry Cedar), a match encouraged for financial reasons by her mother Evangeline (a charmingly addled Sally Struthers). Also on hand is a genuine gangster, Moonface Martin (Jason Graae), Public Enemy 13 and lusting to move higher up the list.
York first expresses her yearning for Barrett with a sizzling interpretation of “I Get a Kick Out of You” and their duet, “You’re the Top,” has an airy, Fred and Ginger appeal. Barrett, immaculately dressed in blue blazer, yellow vest and tie, evokes 1930s polish and style. He’s that rarity, a male lead with chiseled features who also has a sense of humor, as well as a warmly expressive singing voice. We want him to wind up with York, and there’s a sense of discomfort when the plot yanks them both in different directions.
Fortunately, there’s no time to dwell on who gets whom, because Jason Graae’s gangster, a strutting, comedic Cagney in pinstriped suit, often upstages the sexual complications. He does a rousing “Friendship” with York, and when he and Barrett are tossed into the ship’s jail (amusingly designed by Bradley Kaye with bars dropped from the ceiling), he sings a riotous takeoff of inspirational songs, “Be Like a Blue Bird.”
First act closer, “Anything Goes,” features topnotch tap dancing. The number is so dominant and powerful, you can’t help feeling it should end the show. “Blow Gabriel Blow” also allows choreographer Dan Mojica to shine and includes a brief homage to “Singing In the Rain.” Barrett’s “Easy to Love” showcases the song’s enduring beauty.
Act two doesn’t quite sustain the supercharged momentum of the first half, but Delee Lively is amusing as not-so-dumb-blonde Erma, and Barzee gracefully transcends her pallid part as Barrett’s true love. Willard’s tycoon is right on target. Steven Howard and Bob Miller heighten York’s luster with form-fitting pants, lush gowns and a flurry of feathers.
Most crucial of all, Gerald Sternbach’s pulsating orchestra shows every Porter classic off to best advantage.