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Ask Rachel York what she needs to do to get inside the head of Reno Sweeney, the singing-and-dancing nightclub evangelist at the center of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” and she slides right into that 1930s “His Girl Friday” accent to say, “When you’ve been doing this for as long as I have, dot, dot, dot,” and then she bursts out laughing.
York has been at the Sweeney gig for a while, first in 2001 in Los Angeles, where she earned an Ovation nomination, then in Kansas City, Mo., and finally in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s touring production that will arrive at the Kennedy Center on June 11.
“When I read the script and I read the character,” York said, “I saw her as a sort of quintessential 1930s dame. I grew up watching a lot of ’30s and ’40s films, so I based her on several different women from that era: a little bit of Mae West, a little bit of Jean Harlow, a little bit of Barbara Stanwyck [and] Ginger Rogers.
“There was a style from that period of time, a style of talking and walking, so I sort of instilled that into the character.”
Reno Sweeney is a flexible icon, instantly recognizable yet open to interpretation. “I think that’s why she’s a great character,” York said. “Everybody from Ethel Merman,” who originated the role on Broadway in 1934, “to Sutton Foster,” who won a Tony for her performance in the 2011 Broadway revival, “can play the character as very different people.”
Because she would like to spend as much time as possible with her 2-year-old daughter, York has the modern-mom-to-tap-dancing-dame transformation down to a neat 30 minutes. “There are many times you may see some woman just rushing by you as you’re entering the theater, and it might be Rachel York, sprinting,” she says.
“Once you get into your makeup and your costume, it’s sort of a conditioned response at this point,” York adds. “My body just kind of goes there. And it’s a wonderful escape for me, because if I’ve had a rough day or what have you, I can just, bam, go into Reno mode and I’m suddenly on the S.S. American. I’m on a cruise, and I get to fall in love and get swept off my feet and get married.” Eight times a week.
June 11-July 7 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F Street NW, kennedy-center.org, 202-467-4600