"In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking.
But now, God knows,
The world may be falling apart on all fronts, so God knows, anything goes to escape it all. So here comes a daft plot as the vehicle for a truckload of Cole Porter’s fabulous songs, and, true to form, it’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s de-lovely. And there’s dancing, tap-tap-tapping away; yes, I get a kick out of you.
A new production of stage musical Anything Goes wowed audiences at London's Barbican in 2021, opening just when theatres had been dark for more than a year. That show has just started a short UK tour, after which it comes to Dublin's Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in mid-May, before returning to London for the summer.
In an unusual combining of the roles, it's both directed and choreographed by Tony winner Kathleen Marshall – she bagged an Olivier award this month for the choreography of the show and was nominated for direction – who was behind the 2011 Broadway revival of Cole Porter's 1930s musical. Marshall's Broadway production won best revival and best choreography Tony and Drama Desk awards, and was nominated for nine Tonys and 10 Drama Desks. The London production had nine Olivier nominations this year. It got rave five-star reviews at the Barbican last summer, hailed as the "musical equivalent of sipping one glass of champagne after another", and "the antidote to everything", and "as buoyant as helium".
And no wonder. The musical is, frankly, stuffed with sublime Cole Porter numbers.
Marshall has commented: “How many hundreds of times have I heard these Cole Porter songs? I never get sick of them because they’re so smartly written. This show to me is like a wonderful gift.”
"Has there ever been a musical with so many hits?" echoes Bonnie Langford, speaking at a recent preview event. Langford (she of Doctor Who, EastEnders and Dancing on Ice) has a comic role as Evangeline Harcourt, the mother of a love interest of Wall Street broker Billy Crocker and who at one point tells her daughter: "If you don't marry this lord we'll have to live in hotels!"
And they're right about the songs. As well as the title number, there's a raft straight from Porter's Great American Songbook: I Get A Kick Out of You; You're the Top; All Through The Night; It's De-Lovely; Easy to Love; Blow Gabriel Blow; Friendship.
Langford was speaking when they broke from rehearsing for the tour, to show it off at the idiosyncratic and lushly decorated Arts Club on Dover Street in Mayfair, London. Down in the womb-like Leo's in the basement, it was appropriately 1930s-style, with mirrored walls and tables surrounding the performance area: a touch of Anything Goes, the cabaret. Simon Callow – who plays Elisha, a banker and "a gloriously functional drunk", as Callow describes him – and Langford hosted, with other stars of the show performing a bunch of energetic, exuberant numbers as a taster. Kerry Ellis plays the gutsy central role of Reno Sweeney, an evangelist and nightclub singer and an old friend of Billy, played by Samuel Edwards; together and effervescently they belted out: "If baby I'm the bottom, you're the top!"
"Cole Porter was that very rare thing," says Callow. "A composer who wrote his own lyrics, and even if he hadn't composed a note, he'd be immortal for those alone. Anything Goes was his biggest hit up till that time. He was already 43 and the show was put together by the producer who decided on an unusual procedure, to hire the cast before the creative team. In fact he lied to the book writers, PG Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, and other actors that he'd got the great Ethel Merman. And only when they'd all signed up did he actually approach Merman, for whom Porter wrote a total of five shows. He must have absolutely adored her."
In that first production, "cabaret artist Vera Dunn played [the] part of gun moll Erma" (her role was then called Bonnie, the other Bonnie reminds him) "and she originally sang the knock-'em dead song Buddy Beware, to cover a scene change. In our show we've promoted it to just before the finale."
In the cabaret-preview, Carly Mercedes Dyer sang the ballsy ballad, sparky and with a nasal American drawl. She's usually joined by what Langford called "a line-up of some of the fittest sailors in the West End, who carry her by hand from the top of our huge three-level set right down to the bottom by the end of the song, all through the skill of Kathleen Marshall's ever-inventive choreography".
In the taster, we had to imagine the sailors doing this, but we saw them in the flesh later when they joined Kerry Ellis for the toe-stomping, exhilarating Anything Goes: a dancing ensemble in improbably white stage sailor costumes, bashing out the steps close enough to see the taps on the soles of their shoes.
In the stage version of the title song, Langford says, “Kathleen’s eye-popping choreography uses the three levels of the set to sensational effect, with the whole company tapping up a storm”. Callow adds ruefully: “Just think of the poor orchestra beneath the stage. Last year they had to work out how to secure their music so it didn’t fall off the music stands.”
Since doing Anything Goes on Broadway in 2011, Marshall has recast it several times before bringing her production to London last year. She has said Anything Goes “acts like a classic farce. But instead of being in an English country house for a weekend, we’re on a ship.” Of the show’s success, she says: “We were the right show at the right time. It was a chance for an audience to see something big and noisy and joyous and silly and romantic. Even in times of crisis people needed release. We need to be able to fill our souls again so we can have the strength and energy to face the darker things happening around us.”
It’s a big production coming to Dublin with this Olivier-winning show, a company of about 90, including 50-strong cast and ensemble, 15-piece orchestra, and crew. It was originally set to come to Dublin in September 2021 but was rescheduled because of, well, you know.
The show has history, Callow says. "Kathleen Marshall and [producer] Howard Panter have long been planning the right moment to produce the show here [in Britain]. It was originally written in 1934 as America was just beginning to emerge from the Great Depression."
And what of the story? Well, what of, indeed. There's been four versions of the libretto of Anything Goes, with convoluted plots variously involving stolen trousers and gangsters (an early version had an abduction angle), although all have similar romantic complications and feature the same main characters. This production is based on a new book by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman. In the show, two unlikely pairs look for love, with some friendship and farce thrown in, aboard the SS American. The ship is, says Callow, "unlike anything being offered currently by P&O Ferries". He adds: "My dancing alone is worth the price of the ticket."
New to this production are Ellis, after starring in We Will Rock You, Wicked, and Cats ("These classic musicals don't come around very often," she says, "and I jumped at the chance to take on a role that I didn't think I'd get to play"); Simon Callow ("Like everyone who saw Anything Goes last summer, I was swept away by it") and Star Wars's Denis Lawson, who plays hapless gangster Moonface Martin ("I've been immersing myself in the Godfather movies"). Others among the line-up playing bankers, gangsters and young lovers include Nicole-Lily Baisden and Haydn Oakley.
We could get lost down an avenue keeping track of the multitude of characters and twists, but you don’t go to Anything Goes for the story but rather the songs, the dancing, the joyous energy and the endorphin kick.
As the glamorous set boards for its own sea crossing to Ireland, it's all about to kick off.
"I get no kick from champagne
Mere alcohol doesn't thrill me at all
So tell me why should it be true
That I get a kick out of you."
Anything Goes is at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from May 18th-28th. bordgaisenergytheatre.ie