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Anything Goes [THEATER REVIEW]

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Erich Bergen as Billy Crocker and Rachel York as Reno Sweeney. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Erich Bergen as Billy Crocker and Rachel York as Reno Sweeney. Photo by Joan Marcus.

This is the other splashy musical that takes place aboard an ocean liner – the one that doesn’t strike an iceberg.

In case a reminder is needed as to why Cole Porter was one of the great 20th century songwriters, we don’t need to wait long once the lights go down and the band strikes up: “I Get A Kick Out Of You” and “You’re The Top” wash over us within the first few minutes.

“Anything Goes” premiered in 1934, and the story seems to take place in the same year. The cast is on a transatlantic cruise to London via the SS American, the moneyed class decked out in their elegance, and we’re right there with them on their sister ship, the SS Ahmanson. And for a couple of hours it will certainly feel that way.

Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, “Anything Goes” stays afloat and doesn’t stray off course. In fact, it landed the 2011 Tony Award for Best Musical Revival. Back then, however, it had Sutton Foster in the role of showgirl Reno Sweeney and Joel Grey as the small-town gangster Moonface Martin. The touring company doesn’t seem to have lost any sleep over its replacements – the saloon swagger and radiance of Rachel York is money in the bank and coal in the boiler room, and Fred Applegate is an amusing Moonface. Amusing, too, is the latter’s moll, Erma (Joyce Chittick).

Essentially, “Anything Goes” is chockful of shipboard romance – young and old, rich and poor. The scenario may have a Marx Brothers zaniness to it (the early influence of P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, before Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse took over?), but the passions are real. “Easy To Love,” for example, is moonlight in a melody, a soft caress of a song that is first sung by Billy Crocker (Erich Bergen) and then, in response, by Hope Harcourt (Alex Finke). Bergen was memorable in “Jersey Boys,” and here he’s the romantic lead who has to restrain his youthful exuberance behind his bland and straitlaced façade.

Billy is in the employ of wealthy Elisha Whitney (Dennis Kelly), and he’s supposed to be minding the mint, so to speak, but when he realizes that Hope is also on board – but with her social climbing mother, Mrs. Evangeline Harcourt (Sandra Shipley) – he’s determined to press his advances on her once more. Mooney-eyed Hope, however, is the designated bride for the Englishman Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Edward Staudenmayer), who’s thoroughly intrigued by how we do and say things here in the Colonies.

Billy becomes a stowaway and falls in with Moonface Martin. He, Billy, is the epitome of the bumbling but earnest leading man, but we may wonder why he’s gaga for Hope when it’s Sweeny who’s plugged into the light socket.

Meanwhile, the subplots boil over and spill into one another and it’s not only a lot of fun, but polished and pretty much seamless, depending on how well we like the songs – “Be Like The Blue Bird,” for example, seems a little silly to your reviewer. But then there’s the charming “It’s De-Lovely” and of course the two biggest showstoppers and dance numbers – the title song and “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.” This is why you go to the theater and hand over the big bucks.

The book itself was tweaked some 25 years ago, and then recently again, by Timothy Crouse (son of Russel) and John Weidman. If I hadn’t told you, you’d probably never have known since the musical retains its original glamorous feel.

We are dance-stepped into another time and place, partly real, party imagined, and then danced back to our everyday, landlocked lives once it’s over. But a couple of hours at sea and the fine salty air has done us a world of good.

Anything Goes is onstage through Jan. 6 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles in the Music Center. Performances, Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. No shows on Christmas or New Year’s Day, but there’s a 2 p.m. performance on Thursday, Dec. 27 and Jan. 3. Tickets, $20 (steerage) to $120 (first class). Call (213) 972-4400 or go to CenterTheatreGroup.org.

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