Ship-shape and sassy! Splendid sailing in Anything Goes

Anything Goes Tour
Rachel York (center) as Reno Sweeney belts out the showstopper “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” in the touring company of Anything Goes at the Golden Gate Theatre. BELOW: York’s Reno and Erich Bergen’s Billy Crocker enumerate reasons why “You’re the Top.” Photos by Joan Marcus

With a nasty flu ravaging the country, the best antidote might actually be show tunes. At least show tunes as they’re served up in the zippy and utterly delightful revival of Anything Goes directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall. That’s not medical advice, of course. It’s strictly spiritual – some Cole Porter musical uplift to go with your chicken soup.

Somehow, when this show was on Broadway with star Sutton Foster I wasn’t all that interested. Foster, though wonderful in so many ways, seemed at odds with my vision of the worldly, sexy Reno. I’m glad I waited to see the show on tour. Now on stage at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the SHN season, Anything Goes is just about perfect with the stunning Rachel York at its center.

Unlike a Merman or a LuPone, York is a musical theater star who doesn’t devour the show or her co-stars. She’s got a million-watt smile and great gams, all of which are put to great use as nightclub evangelist Sweeney (she makes the late, great Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes even more gorgeous than they already are). She’s got that tough, insouciant but somehow lovable quality that marked so many leading lady star turns of the early ’30s, and her dextrous voice can be soft and warm, full of humor or a clarion call.

When York and company finish the big number near the top of Act 2, “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” the audience response is the definition of showstopping (at least it was at Wednesday’s opening-night performance). York is stunning in the number, but full credit must go to Marshall’s unerring instinct when it comes to pushing audience pleasure buttons with her choreography. This is a director/choreographer who knows how to move her buoyant cast around on a stage to maximum pleasurable effect.

Anything Goes Tour

That same kind of old-fashioned musical theater dazzle and elegance can be seen in the Act 1 charmer “It’s De-lovely,” which starts with Alex Finke as debutante Hope Harcourt and Erich Bergen as stowaway Billy Crocker falling even further in love and ends with a stage full of couples Fred and Gingering their terpsichorean hearts out.

This is musical theater comfort food served in high style and with flair. With Marshall so firmly in control of the tone and the pace, it’s easy to simply relax and cruise along with the S.S. American as it sails through the farcical waters of a somewhat belabored book (originally written by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, then rewritten by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse for the opening in 1934; the 1987 revival as well as this one feature further revisions by Timothy Crouse [son of Russel] and John Weidman). The jokes, some of them pretty hoary, land with astonishing regularity, but it’s really Porter’s score (augmented with additional tunes not in the 1934 original) that put the bubbles in this champagne cocktail.

York kicks things off with a subdued “I Get a Kick Out of You” and then duets with Bergen through the utterly charming “You’re the Top.” It seems York is the ideal duet partner because another highlight of Act 1 is her pairing with Fred Applegate as Moonface Martin on “Friendship.” The Act 1 closer, a tap-happy “Anything Goes,” creates exactly the kind of musical theater ecstasy with which you want to send the audience into intermission.

After the glories of “Gabriel,” the songs in Act 2 don’t quite come up to the level of those in the first act. A string of tunes – “Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye,” “Be Like the Blue Bird” and “All Through the Night” – glides by pleasantly but without making much of an impression. Then Edward Staudenmayer lands like a bolt of comic lightning with “The Gypsy in Me” (performed with York, naturally). Just as the ship seems to be sailing into happy ending waters, we get one more near-showstopper in the form of “Buddie Beware,” performed by the lusty, scene-stealing Joyce Chittick as Erma, a sort of moll for Moonface.

It’s easy to see why Marshall’s production (from the Roundabout Theatre Company) won Tony Awards for best revival and best choreography because it’s 2 1/2 hours that seem so effortless yet so full of charm and energy. The entire company is as sturdy as can be and is as appealing a bunch as you’ll encounter on the high seas of musical comedy.

[bonus interviews]
I chatted with Rachel York and Erich Bergen for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

Anything Goes continues through Feb. 3 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$200 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit

Live from Las Vegas: `Jersey Boys’ opening night bash

What a party! You expect big things in Las Vegas, and that’s what you get.

The Palazzo put on quite a show before and after the show as Jersey Boys officially opened on May 3, becoming the first show at the Palazzo hotel, which officially opened last January.

The requisite red carpet arrivals saw the surviving Four Seasons — Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio and Tommy DeVito, along with producer Bob Crewe — as well as a few celebrities, including John Cleese, Michael Urie (of “Ugly Betty” fame) and Willie Garson (of “Sex and the City” fame) as well as some Vegas celebs: Rita Rudner, Wayne Brady and John O’Hurley (in the soon-to-close Spamalot).

The most moving moment of the evening was when the real Four Seasons went on stage at the curtain call to take a bow with their musical theater counterparts. Read about that and see a photo in my review below.

The opening-night party, held in one of the Palazzo/Venetian airplane hangar-like ballrooms, was a scene. Classic ’60s cars, complete with go-go dancers, adorned the corners of the room where the food tables were, and in the center of the room, like an air traffic control tower, also complete with go-go dancers, was the DJ.

Opening night also happened to be Frankie Valli’s 74th birthday, so when the onstage Four Seasons — Erich Bergen, Rick Faugno, Jeremy Kushnier and Jeff Leibow — arrived at the party, they announced Valli’s birthday then sang a beautiful four-part harmony version of “Happy Birthday to You.” After the stage was cleared, the back “wall” of the ballroom came swooshing down to reveal a dance floor and a stage adorned with — you guessed it! — go-go dancers grooving to a ’60s beat.

Here are some photos of Valli’s birthday tribute:

At the party I ran into Jeff Leibow (who plays Nick Massi) and his lovely wife, Melody, both formerly residents of East Palo Alto and now Las Vegans. They looked fantastic:

I also ran into Joyce Chittick, who plays multiple roles, including Frankie’s wife. Her real-life love is Rick Faugno, who happens to play Frankie. I’ve known Joyce since she was in high school (my mother was her high school principal at Sparks High School), when she performed in a top-notch performance choir called Skyfire. She and Rick were beaming, and rightfully so. They’re in a hit show, and they’re both superb in it.

Live from Las Vegas! `Jersey Boys’

Opened May 3 at the Palazzo Las Vegas

OK, so technically we’re not “live” in Las Vegas anymore (6:05 a.m. flight from LV to SFO – ouch). But given that it feels like I’m still at the opening-night party of Jersey Boys at the Venetian (next door to the Palazzo, where the show actually resides), I feel as live as is humanly possible.

There’s only good news for fans of Jersey Boys. The show has not been Vegas-ized. The creative team, headed by director Des McAnuff has been creative about making cuts and getting the show down to a brisk 2 hours and 10 minutes. The biggest cut is in the intermission, which here is called a “pause.” At the end of Act 1, after the reprise of “Walk Like a Man,” the audience is instructed via a projection that they have eight minutes do with what they please. Now, eight minutes is not a lot of time to run to the restroom or the bar (especially for slower-moving folks), so the wise people simply stand up, chat and watch the projections on the giant video screens (projections of a cross-country tour circa 1964, including footage of a trip across the Golden Gate Bridge and a glimpse of the Transamerica Pyramid-less San Francisco skyline).

Co-writers Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman have artfully trimmed their book here and there, but only purists (and there are plenty of them out there!) will notice. All the songs are there, albeit some of them have also been shortened (not detrimentally and none of the big Four Seasons numbers are noticeably shorter).

Act 1 does feel rushed at times, though audiences will likely appreciate getting through the early stages of the Four Seasons’ development so they can get to the meaty hits such as “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “December 1963 (Oh What a Night),” “My Eyes Adored You” and “Dawn (Go Away).” Act 2 feels more like it did at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco.

Speaking of the Curran, I must say the theater at the Palazzo, which seats 1,700, is quite nice, if unadorned. The sound system, which is what really counts, is phenomenal and is a great improvement over the Curran’s.

The cast, a blend of the casts we saw in San Francisco (but primarily comprised of the performers we saw last fall), is more than up to the high standards we Bay Area fans are used to. The sad news is that John Altieri, whose primary role is producer Bob Crewe, had to leave the cast for health reasons, and his role is now being played by John Salvatore, who’s terrific.

The Four Seasons have meshed nicely. Rick Faugno, who we first saw in the role of Joe Pesci with the first national tour, has really grown into the central role of Frankie Valli. His voice – already strong – has gotten even better and smoother, and dramatically, he’s spot on, especially in his scenes with Joyce Chittick as Frankie’s wife, Mary. Their “My Eyes Adored You” post-break-up scene packs a wallop.

Erich Bergen, also from the first national tour, has evolved as Bob Gaudio, the musical mastermind (with Crewe) of the Four Seasons sound. Bergen is a charmer and a fine singer. He’s also extremely tall, so to say his talent is giant seems fairly accurate.

Jeremy Kushnier, from the second San Francisco cast (the one that headed to Chicago), makes the somewhat despicable character of Tommy DeVito not only appealing but somewhat understandable. He’s not necessarily a bad guy. He sort of means well and just lets his ego do its dirty work. Kushnier’s performance is incisive, and his section as narrator (each of the Four Seasons takes a turn narrating) crackles with New Jersey wit.

Last but not least is the Bay Area’s own Jeff Leibow as Nick Massi, the “Ringo” of the Four Seasons as he says toward the end. Leibow was in the final San Francisco cast (rumored to be the Vegas cast, which turned out only partly to be true), and though he was strong then, he’s even better now. Nick’s mostly contained emotions register more now, and his explosion – geared mainly toward Tommy – is seismic.

The nine-piece band, headed by Keith Thompson, sounds sharp, and Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is as smooth and sexy as ever.

Now that I’ve seen Jersey Boys five times (which is nothing compared to the real fans), I feel it’s necessary to mention the Jersey Girls every time. The three women in the show play all the women in the show, and they work really hard. The expert Chittick is joined by the multitalented Natalie Bradshaw and Julia Krohn in making sure the men don’t completely take over the show.

(above from left) Real life Jersey Boys meet Las Vegas Jersey Boys during the curtain call on opening night at the Palazzo: John Salvatore and Bob Crewe, Bob Gaudio and Erich Bergen, Frankie Valli and Rick Faugno, Jeremy Kushnier and Tommy DeVito and Jeff Leibow.

As has become the custom for a big opening night, the surviving Seasons show up for the curtain call and hug the actor who played them. The Vegas opening was no different. After the rousing closer of “Who Loves You,” Faugno introduced the surviving guys: Valli, Gaudio and DeVito as well as producer Crewe, who all took the stage. DeVito, who is dramatically banished to Las Vegas in the show, still lives in Sin City, and I had to wonder what it was like for him to sit through this show yet again and hear about what a slime bag crook he is – but now in his hometown. But then again, I have to wonder what it’s like for Valli and Gaudio, too, to relive those moments in their past over and over again. They’re probably inured to it now, but I can’t imagine what it’s like for Valli to have to repeatedly watch his stage self go through the death of his daughter Francine.

But at the curtain call in Vegas, it was all smiles. DeVito seemed as robust as ever, and I was only disappointed that Joe Pesci, who was also in the audience, didn’t get to go on stage and hug the actor (Jonathan Gerard Rodriguez) who played him.

As beautifully and as expertly as this show is put together, and with so many great songs and performances, Jersey Boys is mighty satisfying and sets a new standard for musical theater in Las Vegas.

For information about Jersey Boys at the Palazzo, visit