TAMPA — Rachel York does it all as Reno Sweeney, the sensuous sermonizer turned nightclub chanteuse who presides over Anything Goes, a top-flight revival of the shipboard musical comedy by Cole Porter that opened Tuesday night at the Straz Center.
York looks terrific in a lavender gown. She tap dances up a storm in the show's title number. And she sings like an angel with perfect diction, bringing clarity and crispness to the verbal dexterity of Porter's lyrics, all while relishing the long, luxurious phrasing and tonal color of a song such as I Get a Kick Out of You.
I get no kick in a plane.
Flying too high with some guy in the sky
Is my idea of nothing to do,
Yet I get a kick out of you.
Is there a funnier, more inventive rhyme in the English language? York got the show off to a wonderful start with Reno's droll lament, as she huddled in a bar with her putative date, stockbroker Billy Crocker (Josh Franklin), but that was just the first of many dazzling combinations of words and music.
Porter, of course, was the master of list songs, and Anything Goes has at least two classics in the genre, overflowing with snappy pop cultural references from the 1930s (a Bendel bonnet?), most famously in the exhilarating You're the Top but also Friendship, Reno's duet with Moonface Martin (Fred Applegate), the machine gun-toting gangster who stows away on the S.S. American disguised as a priest.
And then there's Porter's dizzily exuberant invention of the word "Tin-Pantithesis" — presumably derived from Tin Pan Alley — in It's De-Lovely, sung by Billy and his true love, debutante Hope Harcourt (Alex Finke).
Kathleen Marshall directed and choreographed, and her fingerprints are all over boffo dance numbers such as Anything Goes, which concludes the first act with the whole company madly tapping; or the swirling waltz steps of Billy and Hope making like Fred and Ginger in It's De-Lovely; or Reno and her four red choir-robed backup singers, the Angels, in Blow, Gabriel, Blow, the gospel according to Porter.
For all its tremendous music, Anything Goes was long saddled with an impossible book by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, rewritten by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Now there is a revised version by Timothy Crouse (son of Russel) and John Weidman, and it is a definite improvement for contemporary theatergoers without going overboard. This old musical is, after all, what it is, full of delightful old-fashioned touches like Moonface's vaudevillian approach to an "old Australian bush song," Be Like the Blue Bird, sung with Irish charm by Applegate.
In one significant change, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, the English fop played in goofy comic style by Edward Staudenmayer (known to Tampa Bay fans as the White Rabbit in the ill-fated Wonderland), performs a repurposed The Gypsy in Me to lend a semblance of logic to an especially preposterous plot turn.
The casting includes fine actors in smaller roles, such as the sailors who do marvelous dancing and sing four-part harmony in the chantey There'll Always Be a Lady Fair, and Reno's foxy Angels. Chuck Wagner, a Broadway matinee idol (he was the original Rapunzel's Prince in Into the Woods) 25 years ago, has settled nicely into the character part of the ship's captain.
Derek McLane's luxury liner of a set is simple but effective, with Art Deco lines in the nightclub. York looks smashing in Reno's costumes designed by the late Martin Pakledinaz, to whose memory the tour is dedicated. Howell Binkley's lighting often bathes the stage in purple. Conductor Jay Alger wears a captain's hat to get things rolling with Porter's bubbly overture.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.