Anything Goes review – Sutton Foster dazzles in Cole Porter’s fizzing tonic for our times

Barbican, London
Blissful songs and dance and spirited performances from a virtuoso cast make a preposterous plot into a delightful musical escape

Descriptions of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes seem to pour out in drink metaphors: it’s sparkling, bubbly, a tonic. It’s certainly got the giddy hopefulness of the night’s first champagne bottle popped, suspended in that state when the world is full of bright delight and possibility. The auditorium is fizzing, too, a buoyantly full house. This 1934 show is Depression-era escapism fit for post-Covid times. If you want to remove yourself from the world for a few hours, this is the place to do it.

The genius of Anything Goes lies in the combination of seriously good music with a plot so gloriously inconsequential that a state of blithe, uncomplicated bliss is reached. PG Wodehouse co-wrote the original book but this version, by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman was the basis for a triple-Tony-award-winning 2011 Broadway revival, led by choreographer and director Kathleen Marshall, who takes the reins again here.

All shipshape ... Sutton Foster and cast in Anything Goes.
Salute to fun ... Sutton Foster and cast in Anything Goes. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The story has shifted a little over time – and new songs added, like It’s De-Lovely, originally from Red, Hot and Blue – but it matters little what happens. There’s an ocean liner heading to London from New York, a jaded nightclub singer, a mid-range gangster, a young debutante and her mismatched English fiance, a love triangle, mistaken identity, bad disguises, farce and wordplay, bias-cut satin and resplendent deco designs (by Derek McLane, costumes by Jon Morrell).

The main thing to know is there’s Sutton Foster, the US actor already won a Tony for her performance as Reno Sweeney on Broadway. The show revolves around her full-beam lustre. She can belt and growl like a brassy broad (Ethel Merman originated the role) or let her voice ring pure and clear. She can play moments of vulnerability but most of all she’s just having fun, rattling out dance numbers, leading the chorus, getting a kick out of the show, just as she does out of young Wall Street broker Billy Crocker (Samuel Edwards) who unfortunately has eyes for another. Everyone else is better when they’re on stage with her, whether that’s Edwards duetting on You’re the Top – with their rapport his slippery character suddenly pops into three dimensions – or Robert Lindsay’s grizzled gangster Moonface Martin having a ball in Friendship. For all that the plot revolves around people falling in love, it’s really these clever, wordy songs of friendship that have all the heart.

Nicole-Lily Baisden, centre, with Haydn Oakley and Felicity Kendal.
Sweet songbird … Nicole-Lily Baisden, centre, with Haydn Oakley and Felicity Kendal. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Director Marshall keeps a tight ship, as it were, the neat set-ups and unnecessary complications of the plot weightlessly executed. In the big numbers, she’s masterful at a crescendo, an innocuous intro slowly expanding into full-blown harmonies, rat-a-tat tap routines and high-kicking splits. Supporting Foster are veteran names and new talent: the always likable Gary Wilmot as Yale man Elisha J Whitney and Felicity Kendal the highly strung Mrs Harcourt, then sweet songbird Nicole-Lily Baisden as young Hope Harcourt. Carly Mercedes Dyer steals her scenes as the unshakably self-assured gangster’s moll Erma, with effortless comedy and a powerful, versatile voice. And in the ensemble, take note of the rich bass of Marc Akinfolarin and spirited dancers Jordan Crouch and Jack Wilcox.

A show full of jokes just on the right side of lame – or just the wrong side but you laugh anyway – by the end, Anything Goes revels in how ridiculous it is, and the audience does too. This is one to get drunk on, hangover-free.

• Anything Goes is at Barbican, London, until 31 October.


Lyndsey Winship

The GuardianTramp

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