What could the Royal National Theater possibly hope to bring to “Anything Goes,” the classic piece of Cole Porter fluff that doesn’t have a whisper of the subtext contained in the other Broadway musical treasures (“Oklahoma!”, “Carousel,” “My Fair Lady,” etc.) toward which the National has tilted of late? The answer: a collective gift for character acting that turns out to be as ideally suited to Porter’s shipboard song-and-dance shenanigans as it was to the expansive Stoppard and Gorky dramas that also have called the Olivier auditorium home of late. Contrary to the workings of such things on Broadway, this “Anything Goes” doesn’t leave you saluting its Reno Sweeney or whistling the set, but when any of a half-dozen or so supporting performers seize their spot on deck, well, one feels the holidays came early to the National.
The decision to stage Porter’s beloved show, in the freshly conceived version (the refashioned book is by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman) first seen at New York’s Lincoln Center in 1987, raised not a few eyebrows this time around: For one thing, this is one musical that would seem to resist the National’s semi-revisionist interest in the genre. For another, indefatigable director Trevor Nunn was coupling rehearsal duties at his artistic home with the daunting task across the Thames of steering into port Nicholas Maw’s four-hour-plus opera “Sophie’s Choice.” Not in a long time has a single helmer simultaneously juggled two such diverse assignments, prompting a concern that one might bleed into the other — and was the world ready for a Holocaust-themed “Anything Goes?”
In fact, this fillet of 1934 folderol must have represented contrasting balm for Nunn after his operatic rigors, since “Anything Goes” in execution turns out to be among the airier stagings of his National Theater regime. (His penultimate NT staging, the musical will be joined in repertory in February by a Nunn-directed “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” featuring the “Anything Goes” company with the starry addition of Joseph Fiennes.) It’s good business sense, too, at a playhouse that has given over half a year in its largest hall to nine hours or more of Tom Stoppard. As a result, this musical can help balance the books while generating its own grinning buzz.
The grins, to be honest, take some time to spread from ear to ear, as one accepts, and then puts to one side, the faux-Broadway aspects of the occasion that make one yearn for the real McCoy. Those include the choreography of Stephen Mear, which recalls not just numerous (and better) Broadway steps but also — on “Blow Gabriel Blow” — a prior National success with “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat,” from “Guys and Dolls.” At present, Mear is a competent imitator in search of his own style rather than a talent who can absorb the past, Matthew Bourne-style, and parcel it out anew.
John Gunter’s multitiered set allows the amorous complications aboard the SS American to unfold in all their ludicrous complexity, but it’s neither terribly attractive nor blessed with stillness — indeed, that foolproof number “Friendship” is nearly scuppered by a scenic revolve that scatters the comedy of the song.
Where “Anything Goes” actually scores is in its casting, leaving aside the hard-working Reno of Sally Ann Triplett, a firm-voiced presence who doesn’t have anything like the “it” factor a musical star needs to simply take the stage and own it. (Paging Patti LuPone … ) But with John Barrowman reprising his role from this show’s last West End staging in 1989 as Wall Street escapee Billy Crocker, the supporting roles are all smashingly well-handled, down to the (literally) carry-on role of a small dog whose appearance at the curtain call prompts purrs of his (her?) own.
In a neat segue from the Caryl Churchill one-act “Identical Twins,” in which he shone last fall, Martin Marquez is a blissfully growly Moonface, the stowaway gangster whose comic malevolence would be no less at home in “Kiss Me, Kate.” (At the same time, this musical’s paean to criminality puts one immediately in mind of “Chicago.”)
Playing the liner’s resident moll, Annette McLaughlin is a leggy spitfire with a crackerjack, gumchewing wit, just as Denis Quilley is a deliciously dim Elisha Whitney, Billy’s Yale-obsessed (“Boola Boola!”) boss. But there’s not a mistimed note anywhere in the ranks, from Susan Tracy as the most gullible and panicky of mothers-of-the-bride to Simon Day’s hyper-soigne Lord Evelyn, the poeticizing aristo who admits to “something savage” in his “gypsy” blood (when, that is, he is not confessing to an “unpremeditated romp in the rice”).
Amid all the politically incorrect hijinx, Nunn & Co. even find time to attend to the emotions, sorting out the various romantic entanglements in a manner, one senses, that Shakespeare might have loved. As is true of many a Shakespearean comedy, “Anything Goes” has to take its characters away from home (the Bardic preference is usually for woods or some uncharted terrain, like Illyria) in order for them to find their true hearts. It’s the ability to make such connections that grants “Anything Goes” its rightful place in the National rep, even if British audiences, too often starved of fun in the year past, may be too busy making their own whoopee to care.