Review: Anything Goes at Arena Stage is spectacular


Maria Baranova

Corbin Bleu (Billy Crocker) in Anything Goes running November 2 through December 23, 2018 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Maria Baranova. Photo courtesy Arena Stage.

By Isabel Hoffman

Trumpets sound off; jazzy piano riffs ring out. The show’s first song, “I Get A Kick Out Of You,” resonates off the walls of Arena Stage, filling the room with a sense of romanticism and grandeur that only old-timey musicals can deliver. Dancers rhythmically tap and swing across the stage. Arena Stage’s production of “Anything Goes” was a show to remember.

Besides the well-known tunes, something else was familiar. Most born after 1995 recognize the face of Corbin Bleu, who plays the lead role of Billy Crocker. A decade ago, Bleu was rhythmically tossing basketballs and encouraging Zac Efron to “get his head in the game” in his role as Chad Danforth in Disney’s “High School Musical” movie trilogy. He’s now gracing Arena Stage’s famed black box theater. Bleu’s acting was charming and highly convincing, and his scenes with love-interest Hope Harcourt, played by Lisa Helmi Johanson, were just sappy enough.

Illustration by Mads Berg, courtesy Arena Stage.

The musical tells the story of Billy, a Wall Street executive’s assistant, who boards the London-bound SS American to pursue Hope. During his time on the ship, he encounters gangsters, evangelists and foreigners. In the typical manner of 1930s’ Broadway musicals, “Anything Goes” is filled with laughter, big dance numbers, love ballads and cases of mistaken identity. Make no mistake—this is not the show to go to if you crave deep, provocative thought or championed writing. But beyond the larger-than-life action of it, there are underlying messages about society’s obsession with celebrities—no matter how immoral it might be—and the superficiality of religion in pop culture.

Cole Porter originally wrote “Anything Goes” in the 1930s, and the show first premiered in 1934. The show was revived and reworked in 1962, 1987 and 2011 in order to remove racial insensitivities that became less acceptable over time. Further modernizing the show, casting director Victor Vazquez selected a diverse cast, casting people of color to play the two main lead roles of Billy and his close friend Reno.

“We’re in an ‘Anything Goes’ moment in America right now, where anyone can be whatever they want as long as you say they are,” artistic director Molly Smith wrote in the playbill. “Mobsters walk amongst us and are celebrated like Kings.”

The set design was distinct: the square-shaped stage sits below a risen audience surrounding it on all four sides. The design of the set makes it seem like the actors are on a ship’s deck, and since the audience’s seats are integrated with the stage, the viewer also feels like they’ve boarded a cruise liner. The stage also has a platform that rises at least six feet in the air, adding to the theatrics and making the dance numbers all the more dramatic.

“Anything Goes” is a refreshingly gleeful show that will whisk you away to a time where the best solution to a problem is to hop aboard a transatlantic liner and sing your worries away.

“Anything Goes” runs through December 23 at Arena Stage in Washington, DC.