Photo © Tony Powell. Arena Stage "Anything Goes." October 5, 2018
Photo © Tony Powell. Arena Stage "Anything Goes." October 5, 2018

Anything Goes: Arena Stage Breathes New Life into Golden Age Classic

For a con man on a mission to stop the woman he loves from engaging in a romantic relationship with some Joe Schmoe from another world, anything goes. At least that’s what Arena Stage’s retelling of the classic play entails, with stowaway Billy Crocker on a mission to get to his beloved Hope Harcourt aboard a luxurious cruise ship using every ounce of his street knowhow.

Anything Goes runs from November 2 to December 23 on Arena’s Fichandler Stage, with the theatre’s artistic director Molly Smith at the helm of the production. During the SS American’s journey from NYC to London, Crocker must use various disguises and the help of his friends to win back his love.

“There’s the romance and the love,” says High School Musical’s Corbin Bleu, who plays Crocker. “What’s fascinating about this piece is the differences in class. Billy’s had to fight his way to the position he’s at in the world. He wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth at all and this woman was, but [she’s] had it shoved in her mouth and [doesn’t] want her mother having a hand in everything.”

The musical is set in the 1930s, which local actress Maria Rizzo says is one of her favorite eras.

“It’s a vibrant time to sing music,” she says of the decade. “That’s what’s going to draw our audiences to the show, because there are so many songs people will recognize.”

Rizzo plays tough-talking Erma, balancing the character’s strength and independence with her playful demeanor.

“I feel comfortable playing characters who are big and exciting. I think it’s easy to slip into a stupid or flaky version of her, but I refuse to play a woman who’s dumb. There are so many women written well, like Erma. She’s street smart, even if she doesn’t talk like the classiest of broads.”

To get into character, Rizzo changed her accent by mimicking folks who say “New Joisey” instead of New Jersey. The actress says she shares a lot in common with Erma – namely her resilience and fascination with the here and now – although her character does love attention from the boys.

“So that and [her] voice were the two opposite qualities.”

For Bleu, navigating his role was more difficult because he is playing a character who is playing characters. Each of Crocker’s disguises requires its own mannerisms and voices.

“I know I am a hopeless romantic, and there is that aspect of Billy. He’s willing to go to the ends of the earth to win this woman’s heart, even after being continually denied. There’s several different accents and disguises, and while doing that you have to make sure it stays Billy.”

Bleu and Rizzo are both fawning over the choices Smith has made throughout pre-production, culminating in the new look and feel she’s bringing to this 1934 musical.

“What I love so much about Molly’s shows is that she typically casts cross-culturally, and it’s really reflective of what America looks like today,” Rizzo says. “Even though this show is from the 1930s, and the original cast would have been all white actors, that’s not the show you’ll see because that’s not the world we see right now. It gives the piece a more powerful voice.”

Smith also encourages performers to dig deeper, including the development of character backstories and experiences.

“We had to find ways to make [the script] justified, and we even brought backstories not in the text,” Bleu says. “We all had to come up with our own improvisations of our characters, [and what] the biggest turning point of your character’s life was. It was really, really interesting. I’ve never been part of a production where that process was so open to everyone.”

With fresh faces breathing life into beloved characters, this version of Anything Goes will undoubtedly emotionally engage audiences who span generations.

Anything Goes has a lot of potential for a lot more depth than most Golden Age musicals,” Bleu continues. “You have an incredibly talented ensemble and the choreography is going to be incredible, so there will be that excitement of having seen a great performance.”

Catch Anything Goes on Arena Stage’s Fichandler Stage from November 2 to December 23. Tickets are $92. For more information on the play, visit www.arenastage.org.

Arena Stage: 1101 Sixth St. SW, DC; 202-488-3300; www.arenastage.org