‘Anything Goes’ at Washington’s Arena Stage
One of the pure joys of America’s classic musical theater was to create worlds filled with singing, dancing, and topicality. No one did this better than Cole Porter, and his iconic 1934 Anything Goes fits the bill in Trumpian America as well as it did in the Great Depression.
Left: Soara-Joye Ross (Reno Sweeney) and Corbin Bleu (Billy Crocker) in Anything Goes. All photos this story: Maria Baranova.
Washington’s Arena Stage puts on one major American musical each year, and this year’s selection of Anything Goes had audiences on their feet with joyful celebration. The show was presented on Arena’s in-the-round stage, and the boisterous tapping flowed seamlessly to every vantage point.
Corbin Bleu, star of High School Musical, is a Gene Kelly-like performer, depicting the lovelorn Billy Crocker with superb singing, dancing, and acting. Soara-Joye Ross plays Reno Sweeney, the role originally created by Ethel Merman. Ross is a more refined Reno than Merman, but plays well with Bleu—though he owns the stage every moment he’s there!
Right: (L to R) Mickey Orange (Ensemble/Quartet), Ben Gunderson (Purser/Ensemble/Quartet), Soara-Joye Ross (Reno Sweeney), Brent McBeth (Ensemble/Quartet/Fred/Photographer) and Nicholas Yenson (Ensemble/Quartet)
The story? Oh, well it’s barely significant: it seems a mixed bag of Café Society celebrities, gangsters, and stowaways find themselves aboard the luxury linerSS American on its voyage from New York to London—what could possibly go astray? The only thing we are meant to care about is—will Billy convince his true love, society heiress Hope Harcourt, to marry him instead of the snob she’s engaged to?
The Porter score is what counts, and this magical madcap musical has a remarkable score: the title number “Anything Goes” finds company with “You’re the Top,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “It’s De-Lovely,” “Easy to Love,” “All through the Night”—who could ask for anything more? The Porter lyrics are draw heavily on 1930s pop culture, as in “You’re the Top”:
“You’re the top! You’re a Waldorf salad.
You’re the top! You’re a Berlin ballad.
You’re a baby grand of a lady and a gent.
You’re an old Dutch master. You’re Mrs. Astor.
Porter’s music is fueled by Parker Esse’s wonderful choreography. Esse is a two-time Helen Hayes winner, for Arena productions of The Pajama Game and Oklahoma! For Anything Goes, he has choreographed spectacular tap numbers, and they are the essence of this production. The entire ensemble is a fabulous collection of energized, joyful tappers who practically force the audience to stand and cheer.
As Esse and director Molly Smith intended, Anything Goes rings true today in a time when, well, anything seems to go. But this production is all about uplift rather than resignation: times have certainly changed, but life is still “De-Lovely.”
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‘The Panties, The Partner, and The Profit’ opened at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre
Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre has mounted a less exuberant production than Cole Porter’s rollicking musical. They are producing a trilogy called The Panties, The Partner, and The Profit. All are written by David Ives, and taken from Weimar Germany’s playwright Carl Sterhnheim. In the Playbill, Ives writes that what fascinated him about Sternheim was his biting social comedy aimed at how money overran all other priorities in post-World War 1 Germany—how “small-minded nationalism was on the rise and civil society and literacy were on the wane” (Shakespeare Playbill, p. 9).
Right: Kimberly Gilbert as Louise Mask in The Panties, The Partner and The Profit, from Shakespeare Theatre Company. All photos this story: Carol Rosegg.
The first play, The Panties, is about how a pair of panties worn by a character named Louise Maske fall down while she’s watching a parade; Louise becomes the hub of an industrial web that, as suitors come calling, reduce her into being a “commodity.”
The second, The Partner, charts a young man’s rise up the escalator of class to the penthouse. Christian loses any moral code along the way, because all that counts is the showing-off endemic to capitalism at its grossest. There is an eerie premonition of Nazism, with Christian coming to embody the will to power in a playground of Social Darwinian excess.
The third play, The Profit, completes the culmination of consumption; self-destruction. Christian’s children embody the wretchedness of a “bourgeois mentality” that fed Hitler’s rise.
In this production the Shakespeare has set the plays in post-World War II America, seeking to transplant Sternheim’s epic cycle “to America of the 1950s, 1980s and tomorrow.” As Shakespeare Playbill essayist Drew Lichtenberg concludes, “Let us whom the shoe fits wear it” (p. 13).
Right: Julia Coffey as Sybil Rittenhouse and Kevin Isola as Christian Mask.
Are the shoes high heels with red soles? Are the panties silk? Alas, it all seems vague and diaphanous.
Audiences in America today are better served with a rollicking ensemble of hoofers tapping their hearts out.
By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer
The Panties, The Partner, and The Profit opened at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre on Dec. 10, 2018.