As a fan of musical theatre, I must admit that my previous obliviousness about the Cole Porter-written show Anything Goes – one of the classic musicals that first debuted back on Broadway back in the 1930s – makes me a little embarrassed. Now, if I had heard mixed or poor reviews of the show I’d have likely been more reluctant to watch it and not felt a little guilty or bothered at having never seen it, but having heard it is in fact critically-acclaimed and award-winning, it only seemed fair to try it out. And in honesty, while I still wasn’t sure what to expect before watching it, it was a pleasant and hilarious surprise when I saw it during press night at The Palace Theatre in Manchester.
Bar its opening scene, Anything Goes is set entirely on an ocean liner heading from New York to London. It follows the intertwining lives and relationships of several characters, most notably Billy Crocker who is a stowaway following his rich boss on board before bumping into an old flame, Hope Harcourt. She is with her pushy mother and new fiancée Lord Evelyn Oakley. Also on board is Billy’s friend, nightclub singer Reno Sweeney, who has previously declared her feelings for him, and gangster Moonface Martin, another friend of Reno’s. There’s plenty of antics aboard the SS American during the journey, including Billy’s scheming to win Hope back, Reno’s meddling to lure Evelyn away from Hope, and both Billy and Moonface’s constant attempts to disguise themselves as rumours of stowaways and wanted criminals float around.
The musical comedy (that is reminiscent of the iconic, irreverent Carry On films minus the dancing and singing) is chock-full of humour ranging from tongue-in-cheek innuendos and song lyrics, slightly cheesy and almost pantomime-like props, jokes and one-liners and sometimes silly, random or playful dance moves. The audience are certainly left thoroughly laughed out by the end of the show as certain characters suddenly act very out of character, Hope’s mother’s dog “Cheeky” being a mechanical puppet that almost had as much personality as some of the humans, and the often totally perfect comic timings of some in reaction to other characters.
Having seen many musical theatre shows in my time, I can safely say there’s very few where the amount of choreography leaves you in awe as you watch practically the entire cast take part in big musical numbers requiring skills in styles such as ballroom and tap, still being able to sing afterwards and not doubling over at the end. Because of the era in which Anything Goes started and is set, the music is a real throwback to the bygone post-WWI days, when jazz, blues, swing and big band were the predominant genres heard. This allowed for numbers such as title song Anything Goes, It’s De-Lovely, Blow, Gabriel, Blow to feature extensive choreography that often last much longer than the singing parts. While I have previously lamented about this happening in Beauty and the Beast, here it seemed more fitting and was definitely more jaw-dropping, despite the lack of extravagance that was present in the aforementioned.
Even other numbers such as I Get a Kick Out of You, You’re the Top, Friendship and The Gypsy in Me that are only sung by two of the characters without the ensemble have the actors on stage kicking their legs and swirling around for more minutes than you can keep up with, sometimes making you think they’re about to do their big finish at least twice before they actually do. The characters (or the cast) lap up the audience’s rip-roaring whooping and applause as if they’re actually on a cruise entertaining guests. And they deserve it.
The cast of 32, which seems to be on the top end of most cast numbers (especially when it’s on tour), are like a well-oiled ship, singing and dancing in perfect tandem and time with each other, whether it’s just two of them or all of them. Led by West End and Broadway legend Kerry Ellis (the first British Elphaba in Wicked) as Reno, the charismatic Samuel Edwards as Billy Crocker, and award-winning TV, film and stage stars Denis Lawson as Moonface, Simon Callow as Elisha Whitney (Crocker’s boss) and Bonnie Langford as Hope’s mother Evangeline Harcourt, almost each and every other cast member gets time to shine, whether it’s through one line, scene or dance in which they accompany another. Other notable members include Nicole-Lily Baisden as the sweet-natured Hope, Carly Mercedes Dyer as the sassy and sexy companion of Moonface, Erma, and Haydn Oakley as the seemingly stiff upper lipped Evelyn. With so many big personalities you might have been forgiven at first for thinking there was too much going on, but somehow it still worked and you soon find out how they are all connected through their crazy antics.
But what made me perhaps even more pleasantly surprised by the show other than my zero expectations of it being blown out of the water, was the number of East Asian faces present in the production. Two of the characters, Luke and John (originally called Ching and Ling – which are either changed due to the stereotypical names or to be in line with their backgrounds as apparent Christian “converts”), are depicted as Chinese and have nearly always been portrayed by actors of Chinese descent (or at least East Asian), even in the earliest productions. It is refreshing to see and know that characters written as being Chinese are mostly accurately played, rather than being re-written and whitewashed. In the current UK production they are played by Carl Au (of mixed Chinese heritage) and Trev Neo (from Singapore). There is also Eu Jin Hwang (he briefly plays Bishop Henry T. Dobson who even delivers a line in Chinese and then is part of the ensemble), David Kar-Hing Lee (one of the sailors) and Filipina actress Natalie Chua who is one of the guests on board. The latter three understudy for other characters including Luke, John, the ship’s captain and Erma, so are given other chances to have more prominent roles.
To the mainly White audience the presence of just a handful of people of colour on stage may not mean anything to them, but to those of us who aren’t it is an exciting and proud moment and I hope one day they each manage to land even bigger roles that really show fans and aspiring actors of East Asian descent that they too, can be up there with or like them.
For me, the only slight downside was the lack of a huge finale performance and song akin to the end of Act One. It’s De-Lovely is reprised before the final curtain but seemed to pale in comparison to the spectacle of Anything Goes and the show-stopping, cabaret-like opening number of Act Two, Blow, Gabriel, Blow. That aside, from start (even it was a little bizarre at first) to finish and from the side-splitting comedy to the touching emotional scenes as well as from the catchy songs to the high-octane choreography, Anything Goes proved why it is such a crowd and critic-pleaser.
Although the short UK tour is currently wrapping up, it’ll be back in London’s Barbican Theatre soon for just seven more weeks. Whether it’ll return again nobody knows, but as the story on board the ship tells us – Anything Goes – and one day it surely will be! So if you’re a fan of the feel-good in-between wartimes era where comedy, song and dance provided fun escapism for all, or are simply a fan of musical theatre and haven’t heard of or seen Anything Goes before, hop on board and do so before it jumps ship!