Culture, we are told, must be “relevant.” But “relevant” to whom? In our narcissistic age, the all-too-common answer seems to be “ourselves,” usually meaning the urban creative elites who make it all happen rather than audiences who may or may not share their sensibilities, and certainly not the overwhelming majority of the population, who never have and never will set foot in a theater. Theaters seeking “relevance” (and money) eagerly jump on this bandwagon, often in the hopes of attracting audiences more diverse than the standard crowd of elderly white people with the free time and disposable cash that elude hordes of basement-dwelling millennials. Washington’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has just hired a new Vice President for “Social Impact,” but no theater in the nation’s capital has yet signaled more virtue in the direction of befuddled upper-middle-class liberals than Arena Stage, whose mission involves creating an extension of “community.”
Soara-Joye Ross’s nightclub singer channeled the best Porter renditions of any singer of any color in the American jazz tradition.
Arena’s ongoing commitment to presenting a “gold standard musical” from that distinctly American genre every season has consciously included multicultural casts, spotlighted “socially relevant” themes that may be secondary to (or absent from) the original plot of a work, and sanitized particular lines and characterizations that might be considered “offensive” today. In recent years it has presented a My Fair Lady with an Asian Eliza Doolittle, an Oklahoma! with a Latino lead, a Carousel that turned the work into an indictment of domestic violence, a South Pacific that condemned colonialism, and a Cabaret that equated Nazi oppression with complaints about alleged Bush-era civil-rights violations. Now it is the turn of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, a hit 1934 musical comedy that bitingly satirized the cult of celebrity trickling out of Hollywood, mocked the mores of the nouveaux riches who had taken a beating in the Great Depression, and, in its famous title song, reveled in a litany of traditional tastes and values turned upside down by the bewildering changes of modern society. Its plot is a fairly ordinary love story of that era: the earnest young stockbroker Billy Crocker goes out of his league to woo the glossy deb Hope Harcourt, whose ambitious mother has aimed her at the dimwitted British aristocrat Lord Evelyn Oakleigh. As they sail across the Atlantic on the luxurious S. S. American, Billy desperately stows away to rekindle his romance with Hope with the help of the fugitive gangster Moonface Martin, a duo of Chinese Christian converts, and the nightclub singer Reno Sweeney, who loves Billy but helpfully falls for Lord Evelyn during the journey. A rushed onboard wedding falls apart, uniting the young couples, as well as Hope’s mother and Billy’s suddenly super-rich boss, the aging Yale-educated inebriate Elisha Whitney, who was her old flame.
Arena’s artistic director, Molly Smith, asserts that Washington “needs a comedy right now,” but before this audience, which tapped nary a toe to Porter’s jazzy tunes, one could reasonably ask when it does not. Her artistic vision is colored by parallels she sees in the America of today with the America of the 1930s: the possibility of inventing and reinventing one’s self, the reality of celebrity status propelling unsavory characters to the heights of popularity, bafflement at “how con men can fool most of the people most of the time,” and other veiled political statements that would not be out of place in an MSNBC editorial segment. The problem with this approach is that Anything Goes remains uproariously funny, speaks more to fundamental human truths than to Trump-era ironic situational relevance, and would have done so without all the politics. Indeed, as recently as 2011, New York’s Roundabout Theatre staged a politically anodyne version of the musical, starring Sutton Foster, that toured the country and won three Tony Awards.
Nevertheless, Arena commissioned a revision that reimagined the musical’s shipboard milieu “as a microcosm of America now,” even though far less of the country indulges in luxurious trans-Atlantic cruising now than in the 1930s. Timothy Crouse and John Weidman, the writers of the new book, did not have to change much of the story or its human dimensions. Earlier revisions wove the hit songs more tightly into the plot and wiped out many offensive lines, including the couplet in “You’re the Top” (added for British audiences by P. G. Wodehouse) that extolled Mussolini. Some of the surviving dialogue really did seem out of place: Reno’s jibe at Lord Evelyn as a “teabag” provoked more chuckling than it would have in an era before the term was something other than a mild slur against the English. Elisha Whitney’s alumni cheers sounded more than a little dated at a time when the Ivy League is better known for trigger warnings, disreputable admissions practices, and the erasure of people like Elisha Whitney.
Arena’s choice to cast African-American performers as Billy and Reno might have been bold a generation ago, but today falls beside the point. In their respective roles, Corbin Bleu and Soara-Joye Ross proved exceptional talents—both triple threats who carried the production with no comment necessary on their race. It seems depressingly retrograde to have to write that they should be celebrated for the excellence of their performances, not singled out for the color of their skin. Perhaps more daringly, the new book substantially rewrote the roles of the Chinese converts—named Luke and John—so that they are more three-dimensional characters and therefore less “racially insensitive.” If this was the goal, it might not have been the most judicious artistic choice to recast them as a problem drinker and a compulsive gambler. The effect, however, was not an unamusing addition.
Musically, Ross’s nightclub singer channeled the best Porter renditions of any singer of any color in the American jazz tradition. Her dancing, both solo and ensemble, stood out among a cast that tended to tread more in place than in other productions. Stephen DeRosa’s Moonface Martin could not escape comparison to Joel Grey’s in the Roundabout production, but DeRosa came out rather the better for it owing to sheer dynamism. Lisa Helmi Johanson’s Hope was a bit pallid next to her fellow performers. Paul Sportelli led a nine-piece jazz band in a peppy reading of the score and its signature songs, no fewer than five of which have entered the canon of American standards. The only real artistic demerit came in Arena’s performing space: a central square about the size of a respectable residential living room. The ensemble numbers seemed crowded when forced into its limited area, and the amplification had an uncomfortable reverberation from where I was sitting.