During the opening-night intermission of Anything Goes, which is enjoying a dazzlingly slick staging at the Fox Theatre, a fellow in the row behind me complained to his wife, "This is a conventional musical." That's right, pal. There's none of the hip-hop, rap, rockabilly, disco or even heavy metal that has infiltrated its way into more recent musicals. All you're going to hear here is that endangered species called a melody. These mostly mellifluous songs by Cole Porter contain lyrics that you can actually understand. If that's conventional, bring it on.
Since its Broadway debut in 1934, Anything Goes has been unsinkable. The original script has been subjected to occasional rewrites, but the gossamer story still chronicles a glamorous Atlantic Ocean crossing. Billy Crocker (Josh Franklin) stows away on the SS American to pursue a young debutante (Alex Finke), who's engaged to a stuffy English lord (Edward Staudenmayer, delightful after he lets his hair down). Add to this ship of fools a hardnosed nightclub singer and an on-the-lam gangster, and you have a nimble clothesline from which to hang an effervescent Porter score that offers enough bona fide standards to fill a lifeboat.
Anything Goes has always been tuneful. No surprise there. The good news about this current production is that from the bridge all the way down to steerage, the casting is first class. We're unaccustomed to seeing touring shows whose bench is this deep. First among equals is Rachel York as chanteuse Reno Sweeney. The moment York strides onstage, channeling sassy Mae West through sultry Rita Hayworth, she commands the evening. When she begins to sing, she opens her mouth so wide, she could swallow Jonah, and the clarion sound she emits would blow Gabriel away. The kinetic York is ideally matched by the droll Fred Applegate. As gangster Moonface Martin, Applegate is impeccably laid-back. His shrewd, soothing performance is an invitation to have a good time. Applegate is the marshmallow to York's dark chocolate. Together they concoct a delectable stage variety of a s'more.
Would that there was space to salute all the principals. And the ensemble! Suffice to say that when nineteen dancers perform the title song on all three ship decks, you're being entertained by 38 tapping feet, 190 tapping toes. It's such giddy fun, even the ship's portholes can't contain themselves. They take to lighting up in the colors of the rainbow — and who can blame them?
The Black Rep concludes its season with the 1975 musical The Wiz, an African American retelling of L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The score by the gifted Charlie Smalls (who died too soon in 1987 at age 43) percolates with rambunctious rhythms like "Ease on Down the Road" and "Everybody Rejoice."
Here too the stage can barely contain so many talented performers. As Dorothy from Kansas, Sarah Stephens has a winsome way with a lyric. Ian Coulter-Buford's Scarecrow, Herman Gordon's Lion and Keith Tyrone's Tin Man are all entertaining. At the top of Act Two, Raphaelle Darden re-energizes the show as wicked witch Evillene; as good witch Glinda, Sophia N. Stephens beautifully renders the score's most enduring ballad, "If You Believe." The Wiz offers a sly take on the title character. Cedric Neal's flamboyantly autocratic Wizard of Oz dominates the stage.
So there are many effective moments here. But they are isolated in a lethargic production that traverses the Yellow Brick Road at a snail's pace. Even the curtain call feels endless.
Here's the kicker: Anything Goes and The Wiz are the same length — two hours and forty minutes. By the end of Anything Goes, you'll likely hope that the good ship American never makes port; would that it could keep cruising forever. By the end of The Wiz, you're liable to find new meaning in Dorothy's mantra that there's no place like home.