Q&A: ‘High School Musical’ star taps into ‘Anything Goes’ at Arena Stage

Lisa Helmi Johanson and Corbin Bleu star in "Anything Goes" at Arena Stage. (Tony Powell)
WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Corbin Bleu & Soara-Joye Ross (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Looking for a “de-lovely” night out at the theater? This one is the top!

Cole Porter’s 1934 classic “Anything Goes” is cracking up Arena Stage now through Dec. 23, starring “High School Musical” stud Corbin Bleu and the energizer bunny Soara-Joye Ross.

“Corbin is an incredible dancer and he’s super cute!” Ross said. “He’s incredibly charismatic and the kindest leading man. All you ladies and gentlemen that have little crushes on him, keep ’em! He’s everything you think he is and more — and I didn’t even know who he was!”

Bleu plays the role of Billy Crocker, a stowaway on the SS American ocean liner en route from New York to London. Billy secretly has the hots for wealthy heiress Hope Harcourt (Lisa Helmi Johanson), who is engaged to Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Jimmy Ray Bennett). So, he sets out to win her heart with a major assist from charismatic cruise singer Reno Sweeney (Ross).

“There are many different disguises and hijinx — it’s pretty madcap,” Bleu said. “There are all of the beautiful aspects of the Golden Age musicals we love, but what I find fascinating about this one is that there’s pretty great depth. … It’s not just a run-of-the-mill musical — especially as this is being worked by Molly Smith, our director — there are so many levels and layers.”

Those layers include class divides and female empowerment ahead of its time for the 1930s.

“[It’s at a time when] if you say you’re a man, you’re a man,” Ross said. “If you say you’re a woman, you’re a woman. If you say you’re white, you’re white. If you say you’re black, and you’re not black, but you say you’re black, you’re black! Because what? Anything goes!”

Ross embraced the diverse casting of Reno.

“This was not on my radar and this, for the most part, has never been played by a black woman,” Ross said. “I get this email breakdown to go in for Reno Sweeney and I’m like, ‘Reno Sweeney? Reno Sweeney? Wait a minute! Reno Sweeney!’ So I go to YouTube and I see Sutton Foster, Ethel Merman, Patti Lupone and this big tap number and I’m like, ‘Okay!'”

The iconic songbook includes the title song “Anything Goes,” “It’s De-Lovely,” “You’re the Top” and “I Get a Kick Out of You,” since covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Ella Fitzgerald.

“Cole Porter is a genius,” Bleu said. “The lyrics are so smart and witty. … He forces you to listen. It’s so easy with this era of musical to just zone out and sing along because it all has the same meaning and heme. But with Cole Porter’s music, he really forces you to listen.”

“[It’s] so sophisticated, so sexy and so colorful,” Ross added. “The melodies are completely catchy and the music is so beautiful that everybody knows it. That’s why it’s so popular.”

The songs are paired with intense tap choreography by Parker Esse.

“Most of the time when you’re doing big tap numbers, it’s very repetitive,” Bleu said. “But this is like a [nine]-minute number and nothing repeats. Not a single bit of choreography repeats, which is fascinating and exciting for the audience, but for us it’s just a constant tick-tick-tick-tick-tick on the brain. And you also have to face south, east, west, north, spinning around!”

That’s because the entire show unfolds “in the round” at Arena’s four-sided Fichandler Stage.

“From every perspective, you really feel like you’re actually on board this ship,” Bleu said. “Our production designer is amazing. … In order to do this piece in the round it’s very difficult. It feels like a Scooby Doo movie! People coming in and out of doors, constantly back and forth, all the different disguises. … To have that coming from every single direction of the theater and be seeing that from every seat in the theater, it takes a really brilliant designer.”

Why should you book your ticket aboard this ship?

“It’s a really feel-good musical,” Bleu said. “It really mirrors a lot of what we’re dealing with today. Sometimes you just need to laugh and see some insane tap dancing and singing.”

Find out more on the theater website. Hear our full chat with the “Anything Goes” cast below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Anything Goes' at Arena Stage (Jason Fraley)
WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Corbin Bleu & Soara-Joye Ross (Jason Fraley)

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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