Kerry Ellis on why you need to see ‘Anything Goes’ in London
It’s fair to say that Anything Goes took over our hearts in 2021. Nobody could have expected the Cole Porter musical to gain such a warm reception. The show extended numerous times and saw Broadway legend Sutton Foster make her West End debut as Reno Sweeney. A year later, Anything Goes is back, sailing into the Barbican for a second summer season. This time, there’s a new leading cast ready to anchor down in the capital, and they’re excited for what this year’s performances could bring.
“I think it was said in the press last year, this show should be prescribed on the NHS, because it’s such a feel-good show,” said Kerry Ellis, who laces her tap dancing shoes for the first time in a quarter century to play Reno Sweeney.
The Wicked and Cats star is usually seen riffing all around the country during her nationwide tours. But this summer, she’ll be leading the Anything Goes cast as Reno, the evangelist and nightclub singer, in this infectiously fun musical.
When speaking to Ellis, her love and passion for Anything Goes shone through. After seeing last year’s London revival, she rekindled a joy for the Cole Porter musical.
“I couldn’t remember how many of Cole Porter’s hits were in one place, just song after song. I also had forgotten how funny it was. It really made me laugh and it also felt very fresh and current, though it’s a classic, slightly older musical,” commented Ellis. And if you’re seeing Anything Goes this year, expect a fresh, freeing take on the beloved musical.
We chatted with Ellis about why Anything Goes is the sunniest musical around and why you need to see Anything Goes this summer.
Even though it’s an older musical, it still feels relevant today.
While Anything Goes may be a new musical for a younger generation, it’s considered one of the leading Golden Age shows — a term that refers to musicals created in the 1940s and 1950s. Many well-known musicals date from the Golden Age: Oklahoma!, Carousel, and My Fair Lady, to name a few.
Anything Goes is nearly 90 years old, but people continue to resonate with the themes and songs. “I’ve done these big shows like Wicked and we get that big audience response. But [with Anything Goes], people really get involved and on board with the characters and with the story and they laugh a lot.”
Anything Goes provides that happy atmosphere for a couple of hours, something which we’re all craving. “After the last two years and with what’s going on in the world at the moment, it’s not easy for everybody. So to have that tonic, that release, that escapism for a couple of hours is exactly what people need.”
See Kerry Ellis dance for the first time in years.
It’s been a long time coming for Kerry Ellis fans to see her strut her stuff. Although she’s been in a variety of West End musicals, her roles tend to showcase her vocals with less emphasis on the dancing. Now, Ellis demonstrates her triple threat versatility, leading the 30+-strong company through lengthy songs like “Anything Goes” and “Blow Gabriel Blow.”
“I hadn’t put a pair of tap shoes on for 25 years,” said Ellis. She trained professionally at Laine Theatre Arts, a leading drama school, but had previously hung up the footwear. Now she’s dusting it off.
“I have danced a little bit, like when I did Cats, but you wouldn’t have seen me because I was hidden in the company. I love to push myself. I love to take on new things that take me out of my comfort zone and to do something like this.”
Kerry Ellis is a real-life Reno Sweeney.
Sometimes actors take on their character with ease. Sometimes actors share the same name as their character (we’re looking at you, Christian Thompson in The Devil Wears Prada). But for Ellis, she started out her career similar to how we see Reno in the show.
“There’s so many similarities that I can relate to her with. She’s a nightclub singer. She’s a performer. She’s an evangelist. She’s known within her circle, but she’s also quite vulnerable,” said Ellis.
But decades ago, you wouldn’t have seen Ellis in the West End. She’d be performing on cruiseliners for holidaymakers. “I actually started my career out on a ship. I think my first job was on the Voyager of the Seas. I’ve been on ships since as a guest entertainer throughout the years and honestly, it’s the most fun thing. I love getting on there.”
So getting the chance to play Reno in Anything Goes is somewhat of a full-circle moment. Plus, roles like Reno don’t come around every day. “I didn’t think I’d get to play her in my lifetime because these roles have to come up when you’re the right age available. Lots of boxes have to be ticked.” Thankfully, the stars aligned for Ellis, and she’s sure to shine in the musical.
Some of the Anything Goes London cast return to the show.
If you saw Anything Goes last year, you’ll be familiar with a few of the company members taking part in this year’s performances. Carly Mercedes Dyer reprises her Olivier-nominated performance as Irma, joined by Samuel Edwards as Billy Crocker, Nicole-Lily Baisden as Hope Harcourt, and Haydn Oakley as Lord Evelyn Oakleigh.
There’s a few new kids on the block, too. Okay, maybe they’re not “kids”; they’re veteran actors. But they’re Anything Goes first-timers.
“We’ve got such an amazing cast who are just a dream. We’ve got the lovely Denis Lawson, who I play opposite as Moonface [Martin], and Simon Callow [as Elisha Whitney] who is hilarious with Bonnie Langford [as Evangeline Harcourt].”
Even though Ellis is a bonafide leading lady in her own right, she still felt pressure performing in front of her new colleagues for the first time. “I guess I was a little nervy about being opposite somebody like Denis Lawson [and] Simon Callow. And then I’ve got to dance in front of Bonnie Langford. It was those things that were tricky. They were so wonderful and they couldn’t be more supportive and lovely.”
Anything Goes is different than last year.
Don’t go expecting a replica of the 2021 Anything Goes. Sure, there’s a blueprint for the production, but the new cast members are putting their own stamp on things.
“Kathleen Marshall, who is our director and choreographer and who won an Olivier for the choreography — and rightly so — was very keen to make it a new take on the show. She wanted us to have the freedom to bring ourselves to it and to bring our own interpretations to the show,” commented Kerry Ellis.
Visually, the performances will still feel similar, and you’ll walk out of the Barbican with a spring in your step. “It’s still a beautiful, flawless, glamorous, feel-good show. But it’s being told differently.”