Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013 | 6:32 p.m.
Actress Rachel York has her work cut out for her in “Anything Goes” -- and not just because the vocally and physically demanding role of Reno Sweeney requires her to be onstage for a good three-quarters of the show.
It just so happens that York is part of a very impressive lineage of Reno Sweeneys.
Broadway legend Ethel Merman originated the part in 1934. Two-time Tony Award winner Patti LuPone dusted off Reno in the 1987 revival. Most recently, Sutton Foster nabbed a Tony for the role in the musical’s third Broadway adaptation.
Luckily, York is up to the task in the national tour of “Anything Goes,” which opened Tuesday night at Reynolds Hall in The Smith Center for the Performing Arts and runs through Sunday. Her Reno is sexy and brassy, supple and strong, and a standout among a mixed bag of performances in the nearly three-hour show.
The tale of love on the high seas begins as our dramatis personae board a ship bound for London. Reno, a nightclub singer who’s doubly billed as “New York’s most notorious evangelist,” is friends with Billy Crocker (Erich Bergen), a Wall Street wheeler and dealer with his sights set on the heiress Hope Harcourt (Alex Finke), who’s domineering mother Evangeline (Sandra Shipley) has her engaged to be married to the helplessly British Sir Evelyn Oakleigh (Edward Staudenmayer).
And it only gets more complicated from there.
Billy’s tunnel vision for Hope leads him to follow his boss, Elisha Whitney (Dennis Kelly), on the voyage, where he crosses paths with the gangster “Moonface” Martin (Fred Applegate) and his accomplice Erma (Joyce Chittick), the comic relief.
Soon, Whitney has the hots for Evangeline, and Billy gets mistaken for Public Enemy No. 1 (Moonface, to his lasting shame, is relegated to Public Enemy No. 13) and is feted as a celebrity by the star-crazed captain, while Reno tries to seduce Evelyn in order to break off his engagement to Hope -- despite the fact that she practically proposes to Billy in the opening scene, a plot point that’s soon forgotten.
Over the course of the final act, all the pieces slowly fall into place (and we mean slowly). Once Billy and Moonface’s true identities are revealed, they’re banished to the bowels of the ship, where they scam a pair of Chinese converts out of their clothes and escape incognito.
A seductive, high-stepping gypsy dance between Evelyn and Reno signals the death knell for Hope and Evelyn’s future, resulting in a climactic wedding ceremony that brings all romantic parties to the deck for the switcheroo of all switcheroos.
York, a Broadway vet who starred as Marguerite in “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and Fantine in “Les Miserables,” is a magnetic presence whenever she appears, which is frequently. When she’s offstage, things tend to drag a bit.
Bergen, for whom “Anything Goes” marks a Las Vegas homecoming (he starred in “Jersey Boys” at the Palazzo for three years), is solid as Billy, even if his stellar comedic timing has a hard time elevating his scenes with Finke to anything more than pit stops on the Rachel York Express.
Applegate’s Moonface and Kelly’s Whitney are studies in comedic contrast, and that may be more of a reflection of how their characters are written than any talent discrepancy. Where Moonface is crafty and likable despite his criminal pursuits, the spectacle-less Whitney is Mr. Magoo on steroids. (In 1934, we suspect the bumbling Whitney must’ve been, to use the parlance of the times, a hoot.)
But a musical is not a musical if not for the songs, and for that, we have the great Cole Porter to thank. If “Kiss Me, Kate” (generally regarded as Porter’s musical triumph) is his magnum opus, “Anything Goes” is most certainly a greatest-hits package, weaving “You’re the Top,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “Anything Goes,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” and “All Through the Night” through an overall wacky book and lending it more credibility than it might otherwise deserve.
In a production where slapstick reigns supreme and cheesy jokes live to be told another day, Porter’s “You’re the Top” references Henri Bendel, Vincent Youmans and Irene Bordoni. (Good luck with those.)
Fortunately for anyone reluctant to fire up Wikipedia in the middle of a crowded theater, it’s all couched in some of the most hummable melodies you’ll hear onstage this year.
Jack Houston is the editor of Las Vegas Magazine. Houston performed in his high school’s production of “Kiss Me, Kate.”