Anything Goes Review: Sutton Foster is other-worldly

Anything Goes at the Barbican Centre is a massive highlight of the 2021 Theatre Season

Starring Sutton Foster, Samuel Edwards, Robert Lindsay, Nicole-Lily Baisden, Haydn Oakley, Carly Mercedes Dyer, Gary Wilmot, Felicity Kendal, Jon Chew, and Alistair So

Ending its limited run at the Barbican Centre tonight (and continuing this reviewer’s trend of reviewing things he sees in a criminally untimely manner) is the sublime Anything Goes. Using the blueprints of the 2011 Broadway revival, director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall delivers a highly energetic, wonderfully farcical and utterly entrancing musical theatre extravaganza.

What Anything Goes offers is unabashed escapism. Based on an ocean liner (wonderfully achieved on stage with Derek McLane’s 2011 set designs), Billy Crocker (Samuel Edwards) stows away so that he can pursue his love Hope Harcourt (Nicole-Lily Baisden), a debutant who is engaged to another man. Unfortunately, Billy has been instructed by his boss, Eli (Gary Wilmot) – who is infatuated with Hope’s mother, Evangeline (Felicity Kendal) – to sell an asset before it becomes unprofitable and bankrupts them. As a result, he has to continually hide from his boss.

This is only complicated by the presence of Public Enemy Number 13, Moonface Martin (Robert Lindsay) on board, with the authorities in pursuit. With Reno (Sutton Foster), the ship’s performer, growing closer to Hope’s betrothed Evelyn (Haydn Oakley), the stage is set for misunderstanding and foible aplenty, as the expansive cast overlap and manipulate each other.

Reviving a Golden Age Musical brings with it a sense of nostalgia – even for those who were not in existence for this era (cough, 90s baby, cough). With an unapologetically huge band, a childish glee in bursting into song and dance and a healthy dose of slapstick, Anything Goes is simply dazzling, and a huge component of this comes from its incredible cast.

Though there are four “star” names attached to the project (with Sutton Foster reprising the role that earned her a Tony for the 2011 Broadway Revival in replacement of previously announced Megan Mullally, who had to withdraw as a result of an injury), they shall be discussed here in the character list order according to Wikipedia. Why? Because, quite frankly, ego trip bow orders are tired and old, and it should be character importance, and not contract negotiations, which decide the order of credit and, to be even more frank, the actors themselves should be aware of this (yes, I am still bitter about Jason Donovan bowing after Jac Yarrow).

Regardless, Sutton Foster is the absolute heart of this project. Having played the role so many times, she has a supreme understanding of Reno’s character and leans into the comedy side of the character instead of the easier, sexier angle. She is an absolute tour de force, a tornado of pure, animated energy that whizzes around the stage. Her chemistry with her other cast members is off the charts. The way that she bounces off her cast mates really helps the witty, chaotic pace, especially as the farce begins to unravel. Not to mention, of course, the insane amount of singing and body-defying dancing that she pulls off effortlessly. For a role that she won a Tony for a decade ago, Foster shows no sign of slowing down.

As the central couple, Samuel Edwards and Nicole-Lily Baisden are disarmingly endearing. It’s sweet, but not saccharine, and is especially sold by Edward’s characterisation. Baisden, as a female character with depressingly little agency, it is trickier to be enjoyed, but Baisden does manage to soften some of Hope’s more insipid edges. Edwards’ devotion and adoration of Hope, and the loyalty he displays not just in scenes with her but also in scenes where they are apart helps sell the legitimacy of this pairing. The way that the expansive set is lit during their duet “It’s De-Lovely” draws the audience in and lends a sense of intimacy that one might think impossible in such a vast space.

Robert Lindsay is chaotically unpredictable as Moonface Martin and, though his singing voice is questionable slash not particularly evident, he is the epitome of fun. Breaking through the fourth wall like the Kool-Aid Man, he has a brilliant, cheeky repartee with his fellow cast members, especially with Foster and Edwards. Though Act 2 number “Be Like the Bluebird” might be a moment where the audience contemplate their journey home, witnessing Foster and Lindsay’s “Friendship” is simply a riot.

Haydn Oakley’s bumbling and suspiciously similarly named Evelyn Oakleigh is highly amusing. Moonface’s sidekick Erma is played by Carly Mercedes Dyer who is riotously funny. Though she has less material to work with, she throws herself into the role with complete conviction, leaving the audience in stitches. As for Gary Wilmot and Felicity Kendal, they both provide laughs in their own turn, especially Kendal as the hysterical Evangeline Harcourt. Giving them the honour of penultimate bow is, ultimately, more farcical than the entire production, but in an industry driven by ego, what can one expect?

But it isn’t necessarily one person on whom the success of Anything Goes rests. Instead, it’s through the continual building of high energy numbers that grow to such incredible extents that the audience themselves may be exhausted. With a standing ovation at the end of Act 1, following title number “Anything Goes”, a particularly extensive tap number builds and builds to a degree previously thought impossible. Nothing fills the body with quite so much joyous, uplifting spirit than a completely synchronised, bombastic tap dance number.

It may not be the height of sophistication, nor have any hidden subtext or fine analysis, but Anything Goes is unabashed in its frivolity and revels in the joy of pure folly.

I very much hope that I haven’t excited you too much about Anything Goes because, as of tonight (Saturday 6 November 2021), it has played its last performance at the Barbican. However, a UK and Ireland Tour has been announced, though has yet to formally set dates or locations.

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