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Delightful, Delicious, De-Lovely: HTG presents a top production of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes”

Published: April 24, 2009
Section: Arts, Etc.

Once upon a time, musical theater used to be about three things. The first was the elusive quality alternately called glamour, stardom, or just pure fame in an era when actors, directors, writers, and producers were stars. The next major focus of musical theater of the day was spectacle – sets were lush, costumes were grand and gorgeous like gilded lilies – with art held in highest honor. And the last, and perhaps most important, thing that musical theater was about was fun. This was an era when people understood why these things are called plays – they are meant to be played with.

Cole Porter wrote the following lyrics for his 1934 musical “Anything Goes”. “In olden days, a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking, but now, G-d knows, anything goes.” And three weeks ago, at the Shapiro Campus Center, Hillel Theater Group put up a production of “Anything Goes” which can only be described as shocking (in the most delightful of ways) in its commitment to the original intent of the show, and to musical theater as a whole. The show’s shock value came not as a result of its content but in its quality – for an open cast musical, where anyone who auditions is accepted and is guaranteed a role in the show, this show was brilliant. Even without taking open casting into consideration, this is still among the best shows I’ve seen at Brandeis.

“Anything Goes” tells a story of star crossed lovers, gangsters, bookies, and bankers aboard the S.S. American (in an stunning set design by Mike Martin), which is bound for England. Through a series of disguises, tricks, a few plot twists, and some of the greatest songs from a bygone era of musical theater writing, including “You’re the Top,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “Friendship,” and the title song, love prevails and all ends well. Yes, the plot is full of schmaltz throughout, but its charm and wit are strong and win over the audience from the start.

Starring as Reno Sweeney, a cabaret singer on the S.S. American who is in love with Wall Street broker Billy Crocker, Abigail Clarke ’12 was a delight. She has a natural talent so strong that I don’t know where to begin in describing her performance. Her presence on stage is so strong that she truly belongs on a Broadway stage, not in college theater. When she walks on stage, she commands your attention to such an extent that you almost forget there are other actors in the same space interacting with her. When she opened her mouth to speak, or to simply react to the circumstances around her, you forget you are watching an actress instead of a deity. And then there were the moments when she graced us with song with a voice that could charm the white off rice. Hers is certainly among the best single performances in memory in a UTC production, and with it we have discovered one of the greatest performers in our community.

Providing much of the comic relief that kept the show flowing, watchable, and entertaining were Marti Dembowitz ’10 and Alex Davidson ’10 as a stowaway gangster and his girl. These two were in top form the night I saw the show. Davidson seems born to play comedy due to his sharp, fast wit and perfect comic timing. As for Ms. Dembowitz, her total willingness and commitment to taking risks pays off in spades. Her madcap performance as a woman of questionable morals and even more questionable profession was the most inspired she’s done yet in her three years of performing on Brandeis stages. And, of course, it was nice to finally see her perform as a female character for the first time.

This production of “Anything Goes” is certainly on my shortlist of the best undergraduate productions in memory at Brandeis – a true credit to the strong direction of Lynda Bachman ’10. With very few exceptions have I seen an undergraduate director put together such a strong, consistent production, and it would be a great credit to the world of theater for Ms. Bachman to continue her directorial endeavors. She managed here, at least, to put together a spectacular, glamorous show that looked like fun to be in and was surely a hell of a lot of fun to watch.