BWW Interviews: On Tour With Anything Goes' Time-Traveling RACHEL YORK

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Much like Dixie Wilson-the character she played in Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice's Turn of the Century at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in 2008-actress Rachel York, the clarion-voiced leading lady whose timeless appeal has made her one of Broadway's most beloved stars, might be a time traveler. For certain, the woman who now plays Reno Sweeney in the national tour of Roundabout Theatre's acclaimed revival of Anything Goes, readily admits she could very possibly have been born in the wrong era, any and all science fiction possibilities notwithstanding.

Scratch that: Rachel York knows she was born at the wrong time, even if her particular vintage has enabled her to take on some of musical theater's most compelling and memorable roles, including the aforementioned Reno Sweeney (she's played the role twice in regional theater before embarking on the national tour, directed and choreographed as it was on Broadway by Kathleen Marshall), Kiss Me, Kate's Lili Vanessi, City of Angels' Mallory Kingsley, Victor/Victoria's Norma Cassidy, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels' Christine, Turn of the Century's Dixie, and the quintessential villainess Cruella DeVil in 101 Dalmatians: The Musical.

"I was born in the wrong era," she admits, during a phone interview from East Lansing, Michigan, where the Anything Goes company sets up shop prior to moving to Nashville for another week-long stand October 23-28. "I grew up watching old movies and I always wanted to live inside of those movies: I love the music, I love the innocence and romance of the period. And I know there are other people out there like me."

"When I play Reno, I like to think of famous actresses like Bette Davis, Mae West and Barbara Stanwyck-they all had such charisma, strength, wit and sensuality. They were goddesses and you couldn't help but look up to them. They were beautiful and had this radiance that was hard to define."

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Anything Goes-set upon an ocean liner in the mid-1930s, a time wherein the words "trans-Atlantic crossing" were filled with romantic possibilities, with the added fillip of unexpected adventure and inherent danger-captures the same magical ambience of those cinematic musical extravaganzas that enthralled a young Rachel York as she grew up in Florida, thousands of miles away from the Great White Way and a lifetime away from the very movie musicals that fueled her dreams and aspirations. And it is that sense of theatricality, set to Cole Porter's memorable score and incessantly clever lyrics, that places Anything Goes into its own musical theater category, appealing to audiences of all ages.

"It appeals to any demographic," suggests York, who is on tour with her 20-month-old daughter and her nanny in tow. "My daughter loves the show, she's bouncing up and down during the tap numbers, so obviously kids love it, college students love it, adults love it, older people love it."

"It appeals to everybody, it allows us to escape from the daily routine, the realities of our economy and everything that we don't want to deal with," she suggests. "It's a fun show, but it's also a family show that is very smart-it's not like you're watching a kid's version of a family show-the wit of Anything Goes appeals to an older generation."

In fact, it's that sense of wonder and innocence, of nostalgia and romance-the very ability of the theatre to provide transport to another fanciful, whimsical world-that has made Anything Goes such a hit with theater-going audiences for the past 78 years. After countless productions around the world (if I had a dollar for every person who's admitted that the tale of the S.S. American was their introduction to musical theater, I'd be a very wealthy man) and numerous Broadway revivals since the show's 1934 premiere, it's one of the theater's most venerable vehicles, providing a starry cavalcade of actresses-from Ethel Merman to Patti LuPone, from Mitzi Gaynor to Sutton Foster-with the opportunity to play the show's central, and delightfully unconventional, character.

Clearly, it's a role that York was meant to play. "I've played Reno twice before in regional theatre-you have about 10 days of rehearsals and a few weeks of performance, so there's not a lot of time to develop the character," she admits. "But I had a wonderful time playing her before and she's a character that I took to very easily."

"Reno is a wonderful character-one of the best ever written. Not only is she a fun character to play, but you're playing a classic, quintessential 1930s star. But she has layers: she comes from the wrong side of the tracks, but has made herself over into a sophisticated woman who is now a nightclub artist and evangelist. You can't beat that combination."

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"It's not like I was playing Lady Macbeth," York laughs heartily. "So it came easy for me to play Reno. This has been a wonderful process for me: Kathleen Marshall's direction and choreography are wonderful, and each and every member of this company is so talented and so loving and giving. There are no attitudes, no egos in this company."

Her co-stars agree, heaping praise upon their production's leading lady: "I adore Rachel so, so much," says Jeremy Benton, the Springfield native (he directed and choreographed the critically acclaimed Backwards in High Heels at Crossville's Cumberland County Playhouse that runs through November 2), who is a member of the show's ensemble and understudies Erich Bergen in the role of Billy Crocker. "Rachel is a musical theater goddess, and a wonderfully real lady in person."

The "wonderfully real lady" that Jeremy Benton refers to is also the mother of an engaged and happy toddler who travels the country with her on the Anything Goes tour. And if York had any concerns or misgivings about taking on such a challenging role, it was due to the fact that she'd just had a baby: "I was a little nervous about that part of it…if you've had a baby, you don't really know how your body will respond to things after," she says. "My body felt a little creaky, my joints felt funny, I didn't think my body was moving the way it did before I had my daughter. I wondered, 'is my body just going to fall apart?'"

Instead, she discovered that the Kathleen Marshall-designed, Anything Goes regime-replete with exhausting tap dance routines performed alongside some of Broadway's finest dancers-was just the ticket for recovering from childbirth. "It whipped me into shape!" York enthuses. "The first couple of weeks were a bit shaky, and I realized that my muscles had just gotten really weak and needed the workout. I feel so much better now and I have so much more energy, thanks to the whole 'Reno Sweeney Workout Routine.' All that dancing and dancing in 'Anything Goes' and 'Blow, Gabriel, Blow' are highly aerobic. It gives you a real workout!"

BWW Interviews: On Tour With Anything Goes' Time-Traveling RACHEL YORK

While those two songs would certainly appeal at the top of York's own personal  "hit parade" of tunes from the show, she says. "I like all of them, but 'I Get A Kick Out of You' is really fun for me to sing, and 'You're the Top.' I say this with all honesty, every single one of the songs I love singing, plus they all have a fun message, so they're all a joy to perform."

York gives Cole Porter all due credit for his memorable score. "His music is timeless; let's face it, he was a smart dude," she says. "He was sort of the Stephen Sondheim of his era. His lyrics are so witty and smart and they hold up through time and his melodies are just lovely."

The rewrites of the script-the original book by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse has been adapted over the years to better reflect contemporary manners and mores, while at the same time the show's score has been supplemented with some of Porter's best-known works-have ensured that Anything Goes continues to appeal to audiences, while it's wickedly wacky plot remains as off-kilter as it was for audiences in 1934.

So far, with the tour still in the Early Stages, audience response has been nothing short of phenomenal and the reviews have been raves. "The response has been unbelievable," York reports. "There are several showstopping numbers in the show and the applause afterwards just seems to go on and on-and at the end of the show, the audience stands and they are so happy."

"This show nourishes my soul," she concludes, just before heading off to play with her daughter prior to boarding the S.S. American for another onstage voyage as Reno Sweeney. And with that, Rachel York is off again, on her never-ending, time-traveling journey through the wondrous world of American musical theater.

  • The national tour of Anything Goes, directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, opens at Nashville's Tennessee Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, October 23, running through Sunday, October 28 at Andrew Jackson Hall. For details, go to www.tpac.org.

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


 
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