Fairly predictably I suppose given the time of year, if someone isn’t opting for panto then musicals tend to top the “want to see” list. The big hitter live in London at the moment is the reinvention of Cabaret although this has to be approached with fingers very firmly crossed that company quarantine hasn’t wreaked havoc and with an eye to a very healthy bank balance (New Year’s Eve tickets at £300 a pop, anyone?) Fortunately, there’s been plenty on the box and their associated catch-up services which can be accessed simply enough. The BBC have been paying their respects with various Sondheim tributes and Sky Arts have been showing concert versions of Les Mis and Miss Saigon and are premiering the revamp of Half A Sixpence. The undoubted star at the top of the musical Christmas Tree though is Anything Goes, directed by Kathleen Marshall and available now on iPlayer (the live show is on tour from April 2022)
It’s doubtful whether they has ever been a classier bit of froth than this Cole Porter show and one of the reasons it did so well last summer at The Barbican was its unrelentingly cheery optimism in the face of all the gloom and doom which has dogged our collective heels of late. Interestingly, the show with a book by the king of the light touch, P.G.Wodehouse (with Guy Bolton) originally premiered at the tail end of the Great American Depression in the 1930s. This revamp of a revamp (it’s been through several iterations since inception) is from Timothy Crouse and John Weidman; fortunately, nobody’s had the temerity to touch the songs which feature classics like “I Get A Kick Out Of You”, “Friendship”, “You’re The Top” and, of course, the title number. This closes the first half with a militarily precise tap dance routine which comes over well on screen but must have been sensational live. Not to be outdone the second half more or less starts with another showstopper “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” which ensures that the middle twenty minutes or so is consistently superb.
Leading both these numbers is the Broadway star Sutton Foster. If you’ve ever wondered about the term “triple threat” then look no further. The lungs of Ethel Merman, combine with the dance moves of Ginger Rogers and the comedy touch of Lucille Ball to bring us the complete package. She also seems to lift the playing ability of anyone who is on stage at the same time; indeed, when she is backstage the momentum inevitably drops. This is because the book starts to focus on that boring element, plot, which is so slight and nonsensical it just gets in the way of the routines. Samuel Edwards and Nicole-Lily Baisden make charming juvenile leads, and the former has a good sense of comic timing, but I started to feel about them the same way as I used to about the love interest in the Marx Brothers films – that they should just get out of the way and let the comics get on with it.
Fortunately, Robert Lindsay is on cracking and wise cracking form as Moon Face Martin (Public Enemy No.13) and, given that he’s now in his 70s, doesn’t look ready to hang up his dancing shoes any time soon. There’s also a delightful turn from Carly Mercedes Dyer as gangster’s moll Erma who is hilarious and can also belt out a song to rival Foster; it’s perhaps a pity that there isn’t a duet for them to get stuck into. The other big hit of the night is Haydn Oakley as Lord Evelyn Oakleigh particularly in his song “Gypsy In Me” which he executes with real panache, though perhaps the song content might raise a few eyebrows nowadays. I’m not sure the roles of the older couple are really commensurate with the talents of Felicity Kendall and Gary Wilmot but, as they seem to be having a great deal of fun, why begrudge them?
The design elements are a feast for the eyes and of the highest standards with a stunning ocean liner set by Derek McLane which makes full use of the Barbican’s huge stage. Well realised cabins/staterooms glide on and off for the interior scenes although most of the action takes place on a sunny or moonlight filled deck which is beautifully lit by Hugh Vanstone. The gorgeous costumes by Jon Morrell are to die for and everything looks pristine in the way that only Hollywood used to make it. Aurally, there’s a huge treat in store too as Stephen Ridley’s orchestra makes sure that Porter’s tunes are delivered with the requisite amount of zing.
If you can find something that’s more relentlessly upbeat and cheerful to watch than this show then do let me know. It is ideal post-Christmas fare being as light as a souffle and a reminder of high summer. It’s also a perfect corrective to the current social uncertainty and misery which pervades although for safety’s sake it’s probably best not to take the title too literally.