Monday, December 19, 2011

Best of 2011 Countdown: #7

*Note:  I originally named War Horse as my number 9 pick for Best Show of 2011, but when I looked back at my original “Best of” list, I realized the number 8 show had no business being on it.  So I’ve bumped War Horse up a spot.  You’re welcome, Lincoln Center.*

Best of 2011
#7 Anything Goes

Sutton Foster and the Anything Goes ensemble

It’s tricky to revive a pre-Rodgers & Hammerstein musical.  In the years since the team’s heyday, it has become standard for a show’s musical numbers to work with the book scenes in advancement of plot and/or characterization.  We as audience members expect this of all shows, and generally demand a damn good reason for a show to break from that format.  But before 1943, it was perfectly acceptable for a musical to consist of elaborate production numbers padded out by a loosely constructed and often nonsensical plot. 

Such is the problem with Anything Goes.  For all of its entertainment value, including a fantastic score by the great Cole Porter, nothing of consequence really happens.  Even with multiple rewrites over the years (there are now a whopping six credited bookwriters, and lord knows how many uncredited tweaks by actors and directors), the show’s plot makes no sense.  There’s something about a working class man trying to win the affections of an upper class debutante, a completely harmless “public enemy” trying to increase his street cred, and apparently lead character Reno Sweeney is an evangelist who saves souls for a living.  But in essence the story is an excuse to have various combinations of performers sing a hit parade of Porter tunes, all in the name of entertainment.

And entertaining it is.  Kathleen Marshall has crafted a perfectly fine revival of this reliable favorite, with a (mostly) game and talented cast doing an excellent job of delivering the material with style and flair.  Her Tony-winning choreography on the title song alone is worth the price of admission, as it is one of the most joyous demonstrations of talent and stagecraft currently on a Broadway stage.  But for all of her directorial skill, Marshall can’t quite maintain that level of enthusiasm throughout the entire show.  Sometimes the show starts to feel like the 70-year-old dinosaur that it is, rather than a fresh and relevant revival of an old favorite.  In fact, I would argue that there isn’t a whole lot going on at the Stephen Sondheim theatre that couldn’t be seen in a well-done regional production of the show.

So what makes this one of the best shows of 2011?  The answer is simple: Sutton Foster.  The eminently likable and multi-talented comedienne’s take on Reno Sweeney is the kind of star turn that will be talked about for decades, and she single-handedly elevates the production to must-see status.  Her phenomenal voice and solid dance skills would be enough to make her a great Reno, but once you throw her often underrated acting ability and emotional sincerity into the mix you have a truly transcendent performance that more than deserves all the Best Actress awards she received for it.  Anything Goes cements Foster as a once-in-a-generation kind of talent, an ebullient throwback to the musical comedy stars of yesteryear.  If you haven’t seen her, go now, and watch how the pros really do it.

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