When Molly Smith decided to stage a revival of the 1934 musical “Anything Goes,” she practically had to say “everything goes.” Except, of course, for the iconic Cole Porter tunes that include “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “It’s De-Lovely” and the title tune.
But as the longtime artistic director of Arena Stage, Smith acknowledged that the original script was full racist and misogynistic references. So she had those issues rewritten and revised to be less offensive. Then, she made her cast look “more like America,” with a cast of all colors and races.
But, she added, the leading lady role, Reno Sweeney, “had to be an African-American woman.”
And so, the incredible Soara-Joye Ross stepped into the role and blew the roof off of the theater as the sophisticated lead. Ross’ combination of suaveness and badness made her compelling, even when she wasn’t singing to the hilt, tapping or dancing her way across the Fichlander’s theater-in-the-round stage.
In her Arena Stage debut, Ross is just coming off of a run as Frankie in John Doyle’s New York revival of “Carmen Jones” and was nominated for the AUDELCO award.
Her co-lead, Corbin Bleu of “High School Musical” fame, showed his muster in tap, waltzing and singing big, bold Broadway numbers to the delight of the audience.
Set on a ship making a trans-Atlantic voyage from New York to London, the thinly masked plot serves primarily as a vehicle for the songs, dances and some slapstick jokes, but is basically a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-and-girl-live-happily-ever-after tale.
Beyond adhering to the original score by Porter, the orchestra captured the light-hearted romanticism of the tunes, which are considered part of the Great American Songbook.
“You’re the Top,” “Friendship” and “Blow Gabriel, Blow,” are just a few of the other big numbers that bring forth both a sense of familiarity, and a burst of fantasy rooted in a sentimental past.
The period costumes, designed by Alejo Vietti were elegant and flawless. It was a time when spectator pumps, sailor outfits and chic sashes and toppers were all the vogue.
Choreographed by longtime associate Parker Esse, Smith’s role as director brought this idyllic musical back to a fresh place that is both spectacular and fun simultaneously.
Actress Kristyn Pope plays one of Reno Sweeney’s entourage of dancing angels, Chastity, and is no newcomer to Arena Stage.
“Anything Goes” marks my third Arena Stage production,” Pope said. “I was a swing in ‘Sophisticated Ladies,’ which was presented at the historic Lincoln Theatre. Following that, I was a replacement in the reboot of ‘Oklahoma!’
“Arena Stage is truly a magical place, one that encourages, supports, cultivates and empowers artists,” she said. “It’s truly a theater home with an incredible extended family. I try to enter opportunities without expectation, but I’m hoping to grow, learn and spread joy while I’m here.”
The expectations that this newly configured, more inclusive version of “Anything Goes” will spread joyfulness and good humor during the upcoming holiday season are high and come with newly minted accolades.
One seasoned theater aficionado commented, “Anything Goes” is refreshing and full of light and merriment in an uncertain time.”
“Anything Goes” plays at the Arena Stage’s Fichlander Stage through Dec. 23. Visit www.arenastage.org for tickets and show times. Several of the shows will feature post-performance discussions.