Sometimes those big ships really feel the waves. In the Roundabout Theatre Company's Broadway revival of Cole Porter's 1934 musical-on-a-cruise, Anything Goes, the waves hit early.
The show, which opened Thursday night at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, sailed out of port to a rocky start at the preview I saw Wednesday afternoon. Singers were too often off-key, the dancing - particularly a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers wanna-be - was only workable, and the show had a tired feel when it didn't seem simply under-rehearsed.
Then, the ship suddenly changed course. In the eighth and final scene of Act 1, the indefatigable Sutton Foster delivered the first lines of the tile song: "Times have changed, and we've often rewound the clock..." The clock, Foster couldn't rewind. But at Anything Goes, times had changed for sure.
The show became energized and dynamic, and the cast delivered the tap dance of its life, a kinetic tour-de-force choreographed by the director, Kathleen Marshall (The Pajama Game). In large-cast dancing, Marshall is especially sharp when she brings all the dancers close together as one unit, then moves them across the stage until she finally breaks them up; the synergy in those moments is palpable.
The show found its momentum, and kept it through the second act. Foster, playing the Reno Sweeney role with songs that Ethel Merman sang in the original version ("Anything Goes", "Friendship", "Blow, Gabriel, Blow") carries the show and produces the brass demanded from her singing. (She also has the best legs on Broadway, no contest.) Colin Donnell (Jersey Boys), as the stowaway who's her pal, is less successful; he has good looks and a lovely tenor voice, but at the performance I saw, he had trouble getting it on key or, sometimes, maintaining it there.
Joel Grey returns to Broadway in Anything Goes and he's a delight as Moonface Martin, the mobster who's hiding out by being aboard the ship. It's too bad he doesn't have more to do. Cole Porter's lyrics are still enchanting, and "You're the Top," with its many references from '30s Americana, comes off nicely as a well-preserved time capsule. The lesser-known songs are among the second half's more grabbing vocal performances.
Derek McLane's generous ship set is on stage too long in the first half, making it static and after a while, uninteresting, but the scene-changes in the second half make up for that. The book for Anything Goes, by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman, stresses the show's ample corn; the jokes are either chucklers, groaners or dismissable.
One element - Martin Pakledinaz's costumes - sails smoothly the entire cruise. Every piece, from the sailors' uniforms to the formal wear for the passengers, is beautifully created and crafted.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Follow him on Twitter at #philastage. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.