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

SHN/Best of Broadway’s new season

Megan Hilty (left) as Glinda and Eden Espinosa as Elphaba from the original LA company of Wicked. Photo by Joan Marcus

Old friends, new winners mark 30th anniversary season

Carole Shorenstein Hays and Robert Nederlander’s new SHN/Best of Broadway season marks a milestone: 30 years of bringing Broadway to the Bay Area.

The new season, announced today, kicks off in February 2009 with a “third time’s the charm” production of Wicked, the monstrous hit musical that had its world premiere at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre. This time around, the musical about the witches of Oz, will play the Orpheum Theatre.

In March of 2009, Grease is the word. This is the production directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall that got famous for being the first Broadway musical to cast its leads on national television (through the NBC show “Grease: You’re the One That I Want.” This is also the production that marries the original stage version with the movie version, so songs such as “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and “You’re the One That I Want” are included.

Things get exciting in April 2009 with a world premiere musical. Ever After, with a book by Marcy Heisler and Theresa Rebeck, music by Zina Goldrich and lyrics by Marcy Heisler, is directed by Doug Hughes (a Tony winner for Doubt). Ever After, which plays the Curran, is based on the 1998 movie starring Drew Barrymore and is a new twist on the Cinderella story by banishing all the bibbi-dee-bobbi-dee boo elements and focusing on a spirited young woman defying societal constraints.

In August of 2009, the theater scene gets hot with Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for drama. The Steppenwolf production (currently scorching Broadway) is directed by Anna D. Shapiro. The San Francisco production at the Curran Theatre kicks off the national tour.

A final show is yet to be named, but is described in press materials as a “Broadway blockbuster.” The show will be revealed, according to the Web site, in July.

Not part of the season but a “special attraction” is the umpteenth return of a Bay Area favorite: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. The show will run Nov. 26 through Jan. 4 at the Orpheum. Tickets go on sale Sept. 7.

For the new SHN/Best of Broadway season, subscriptions are $170 to $551. Call 415-551-2050 or 877-797-7827 or visit for information.

Listen to a podcast about the new SHN/Best of Broadway season here.

Oil slick

“Grease: You’re the One That I Want” is the worst kind of “reality” TV tripe. So why am I watching it and sort of looking forward to Sunday’s TWO-HOUR voting show?

From the outset, I wasn’t going to watch the show at all. Other than “Project Runway,” I don’t do reality TV (insert snobby sniff-sniff here). I missed the first episode of “Grease” on NBC and my doggone TiVo (it knows me too well and it scares me) recorded a rerun on Bravo.

For those who don’t know, “Grease: You’re the One That I Want” is patterned after a similar show in England in which a lengthy audition process to find the Maria for a new Andrew Lloyd Webber-produced The Sound of Music in London’s West End was televised, and viewers got to vote on the winner. Apparently the woman chosen by the public is very good, and the revival is monster hit.

For the American version, they’re casting the roles of Danny and Sandy for a new Broadway revival of Grease (the musical least in need of Broadway reviving).

Some real talent (director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall) (left) is involved in this process as well as some non-talent (“hosts” Billy Bush and Denise Van Outen). All the worst reality TV trappings — dumb-ass sound effects, slow-mo, agonizing repetition — are here in full force and nearly ruin the show.

Notice I say “nearly.” There is fun to be had here. My favorite drama so far has been all the cry-baby auditioners. One girl melted down mid-audition for producer David Ian. That can’t be fun (hey — I hear vocal training can really help in these situations — check it out!). And the saga of jock Matt Nolan has been great. He’s a major sports guy (even works in sports marketing or some such) who has a secret desire to be a Broadway song and dance man. Turns out he was the biggest cry-baby of all. His session with producer Ian is a hoot. Watch it:

Going into what is sure to be two hours of torture on Sunday, what with the live component and viewer voting, I’m pulling for Ashley Spencer (who played Barbie in the national tour of Barbie in Fairy-topia) and Juliana Hansen (who’s in a Bruce Springsteen tribute band) in the Sandy category and local Foster City boy Jason Celaya and pure pro Austin Miller. I suppose I should also throw my support behind Chad Doreck because I support anyone named Chad who isn’t a porn star.

Visit NBC’s official “Grease: You’re the One That I Want” Web site here.