Interview: Ashley Cowl of ANYTHING GOES at 42nd Street Moon Straps on Her Tap Shoes to Play Reno Sweeney

Cowl stars in Cole Porter's madcap musical comedy February 23 to March 12 in San Francisco

By: Feb. 21, 2023
Interview: Ashley Cowl of ANYTHING GOES at 42nd Street Moon Straps on Her Tap Shoes to Play Reno Sweeney
Triple-threat actor-singer-dancer Ashley Cowl
(photo courtesy of 42nd Street Moon)

Hard-bitten nightclub performer Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes is one of the crown jewels of the musical theatre canon, having been created by Ethel Merman and subsequently performed to great acclaim by luminaries no less than Patti LuPone and Sutton Foster. Thus, Ashley Cowl knows she's got a pearl of a role in 42nd Street Moon's new production of Cole Porter's perennially popular musical comedy, and she is more than ready to rise to the occasion and show us her own unique take on Reno. She can't wait to deliver Cole Porter classics such as "I Get a Kick Out of You," "You're the Top," "Blow Gabriel, Blow" and the irresistible title song. Plus, she gets to tap dance up a storm.

Cowl has performed all over California in roles as varied as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors, Eva Peron in Evita, and Maggie in A Chorus Line. I spoke with Cowl by phone last week while she was in the midst of Moon's typically compressed rehearsal period. We chatted about her affinity for the role of Reno and how she hopes to uncover her more vulnerable side, her lifelong love of tap dancing, and a couple of other roles she'd like to assay someday. Talking with her, I got the impression that Cowl is a true musical theater trouper - been there, done that and yet always eager to take on a new challenge. The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How familiar were you with Anything Goes before being cast as Reno?

Well, I actually had done the show about 12 or 13 years ago, playing Hope Harcourt. I think it's one of the only times I've ever played an ingenue to be honest, which was a surprise even to me! [laughs] But I enjoyed that experience so much, and I think I knew one day I would probably fill the shoes of Reno. I just didn't know when that would happen.

But I was familiar with that version of the show, which was the Patti LuPone/Beaumont revival book and score, and it's a little different this time. We have a new script that addresses some of the cultural insensitivities and updates the book a little bit for current audiences. And the score is really a happy mix of the Beaumont version, the Sutton Foster revival and the 1960s version. So it's gonna be a totally new production that no one has ever seen before, and I'm excited about that.

You just mentioned the names of some women who have played Reno. Are you somebody who likes to research what other performers have done with a role?

I think it's smart to know kind of where you're coming from, what the expectation is, and then embellish on that, put your own self into it and make it your own and try not to copy. But there are certain expectations with certain shows, there are boxes you have to tick. I think there are things the audience wants to see, and so you have to honor that a little bit while still making it your own.

In what ways are you like Reno Sweeney and what ways are you different?

It's really been interesting in rehearsals to find the human aspect of Reno that I think sometimes is overlooked. You know we get to see the façade of this larger-than-life character, but it's really hiding this vulnerable side. And I really empathize with Reno. She is often seen as someone who can tough it out, nothing gets by her, she takes everything in stride. But underneath she's a real vulnerable human being who just wants to be loved, and I think that's a universal concept.

I can see how for years I've probably put up an exterior as well of being impenetrable. And I realized you know "No, I'm a vulnerable person and people need to see this side of me, they need to know who I am." And it's a coping mechanism, you know? [laughs] We all defend ourselves in different ways. But yeah, I really have been exploring that side of her and enjoying that.

And then how am I not like Reno? Well, I'm not in a nightclub every night! [laughs] I mean, I'm not gonna call her an alcoholic, but she does like her gin and her brandy and her Manhattans. But I think that I'm finding we're more alike than we are different.

I understand what you mean about the need to show Reno's human side. I've seen women who sang the role beautifully, but didn't show any vulnerability so that when (spoiler alert?) she falls in love in the end, you didn't quite believe it.

Yeah. And I really like how Nick [Ishimaru] our director is staging some of these numbers to show that there's this heightened façade of these characters and then there's the softer side, the vulnerable side. One of my favorite numbers in the show is "I Get a Kick Out of You" because it is completely different than any other version I've seen. Usually that's staged very presentationally, at the bar talking to Billy, and this is not that. I don't want to give it away, but it's one of the most beautiful moments I have in the show.

Previous versions of Anything Goes have featured varying amounts of dancing. Does this production have much choreography?

Of course! It wouldn't be Anything Goes without tap dancing. Everyone is such a capable dancer in this show and Robyn Tribuzi, our choreographer, has really highlighted and showcased that. Of course, there is a lot of tapping, but there's also a lot of other stylized movement of the period, and even the duets like "Friendship" and "You're the Top" have a lot of movement.

Do you have much of a background in tap?

I do. I started tap dancing when I was 3 years old so it was kind of my first love, in terms of dance, and I've maintained that throughout my entire life. I currently teach tap classes to children and adults so it's a part of who I am. I haven't actually tapped in a show since pre-pandemic, and that was also at Moon - Dames at Sea. So it's funny, I played what would be the spoof version of Reno Sweeney, which is Mona Kent. And now I get to play the real version so I'm really looking forward to that.

Will you be performing the show without amplification?

We will not be using mics, as per usual with Moon.

As an audience member, I love that Moon doesn't use microphones. I love hearing the sound come directly from the performers and not from some speaker off to the side. What is that like for you as a performer?

When I did Dames at Sea in 2018, that was my first time working at Moon, my first time in a while not using a mic, and in that space it works. It's nice to be able to, like you said, hear your natural voice, and not the feedback from an amp or a monitor, and just to do that natural projection connecting with an audience. And we have such a vocally talented cast. They're really singing their hearts out and the blend sounds fantastic in rehearsals, so I can only imagine what it's going to sound like in the space.

Anything Goes is chock full of great numbers. What is currently your favorite song in the show?

Oooh, that's hard! [laughs] This might change (and it probably will) - but it's currently "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" just because I feel like I can really let go and sing on that one. I feel like that about all the numbers, though, to be honest. And then just for sentimental reasons I love listening to "All Through the Night." I remember when I was Hope that was my favorite song to sing. I just love that with the quartet; it sounds so lush.

Do you have any dream roles in musical theatre that you haven't gotten a chance to play yet?

Well, I bring this up all the time because no one will produce this show, and I don't know why not, but the title role in Kiss of the Spiderwoman. I actually did an LA run of that show about 13-14 years ago playing the role of Marta, but I would love to tackle Aurora, the Spiderwoman. She's so multi-faceted, I love the dreamlike aspects of her, but then there's realism to her as well. And I just love that score. It's one of Kander & Ebb's finest.

I would also love to tackle Lady of the Lake [in Spamalot] for the pure fun of it. I just think it's so funny and I would get to sing in every style imaginable. I kind of gravitate toward the really dark and then the really campy and fluffy. I don't know what that's about for me, but I would love to play either one of those roles.


Anything Goes runs February 23 - March 12, 2023 at San Francisco's Gateway Theatre (215 Jackson St, San Francisco, CA). For tickets and further information, call (415) 255-8207 or visit 42ndstmoon.org/anything-goes.




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