This delightful, delicious Cole Porter musical from 1934 is as buoyant as helium, and introduces London audiences to the slinky, hot-shoe oomph of Sutton Foster. The actress won her second Tony award playing nightclub singer Reno Sweeney on Broadway and stepped in when Megan ‘Will and Grace’ Mullally withdrew from the part here.
Her irresistible performance, alongside rock-solid turns from Robert Lindsay, Felicity Kendal and Gary Wilmot, some bright young romantic leads and a very tight ensemble, ensures a terrific show. A breathtaking, tap-dancing rendition of the title song, bringing act one to a close, also brought a packed Barbican to its feet.
The plot centres on junior broker Billy Crocker’s attempt to pry debutante Hope from her aristocratic fiancé, on a cruise ship from London to New York. There are shenanigans involving her mother (Kendal), Billy’s plutocrat boss (Wilmot) and a gangster (Lindsay), with Reno as the grease between all the wheels. The show brims with the naughtiness and snappy wit of a world struggling back from the Depression and Prohibition. And it’s packed with transporting, insouciantly clever Porter classics: I Get a Kick Out of You; You’re the Top; It’s De-Lovely.
The whole thing is a confection, and hopelessly old-fashioned of course. Who under 50 gets a reference to Jimmy Durante? But perhaps Strictly and retro Netflix dramas are a gateway drug for the young to old-school glamour.
Anyway, Kathleen Marshall’s direction and choreography are supremely polished. Derek McLane’s set gives us lots of chrome and white-painted painted naval steel, plus sumptuous art deco interiors. Costume designer Jon Morrell swathes Foster in ravishing silk and ensures everyone looks fabulous, including the sailors. Surrender is the only option.
Robert Lindsay gives an easygoing, shoulder-rolling, soft-shoe-shuffling performance as low-league criminal Moonface Martin that reminds you what a stage pro he is. His duet with Foster on the song Friendship is a playful delight. There’s a meltingly sweet, major-stage debut from Nicole-Lily Baisden as a clear-voiced Hope and a conversely sassy, scene-stealing turn from Carly Mercedes Dyer as libidinous gangster’s moll Erma. They and Samuel Edwards, charming and tuneful as Billy Crocker, all went to London’s Arts Ed drama school. Something in the water there, perhaps?
Although this show is obsessed with money, class and status – including rankings on the Most Wanted List – the junior leads, the ship’s captain, and even the two Chinese steerage passengers get pleasing moments in the sun. But the best songs and the biggest moments belong to Reno Sweeney, and Foster knocks them dead. A magnificent London debut.
Until 31 Oct: barbican.org.uk