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