‘Anything Goes’ at Howard University

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Howard University’s Department of Theatre Arts’ Anything Goes, currently on the boards at the Ira Aldridge Theater, is a show to which everyone should go see. It is not to be missed.

Ryan Swain and Olivia Russell. Photo by Justin D. Knight.
Ryan Swain and Olivia Russell. Photo by Justin D. Knight.

This production is mind-blowing for the professionalism, enthusiasm, energy, and talent of its entire cast.

Broadway and Hollywood, get ready for the next generation of film and theater talent: it’s being incubated right now on the Howard University campus.

The show originally debuted in 1934, in the middle of the Great Depression. Anything Goes depicts the antics of several classes of whites, including a member of British royalty, with two minor Asian characters.

The original verison, with music and lyrics by Cole Porter, had a book by P.G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. The show has been through several revisions over the decades, plus two film versions. The current “new book” is by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman and maintains the classic Cole Porter music and songs.

In the Howard University iteration, performed by an all African-American cast, the words to the classic Cole Porter song, “Anything Goes,” take on a bit of irony: “The world has gone mad today  And good’s bad today, / And black’s white today, /And day’s night today …”

The plot revolves around the characters’ antics aboard a passenger ocean liner, the S.S. American, bound from New York City to London.

(In this show, with a few grins and raised eyebrows, the two “Asians” are now “Africans.”)

While the audience was being seated, an overture of the show’s top-tapping classics was performed, seemingly sounding like a vintage 78 record playing on a dusty Victrola phonograph turntable.

The madcap show opens quietly in a Manhattan bar. A sailor and his girl are having drinks at a stand-up table. A bartender is mixing drinks at the bar.

Wall Street magnate Elisha “Eli” Whitney (Jabari Denson) is giving last minute instructions to his assistant Billy Crocker (Ryan Jamaal Swain). Whitney is planning to sail aboard the S.S. American to London first thing the next morning and wants Crocker to sell off all his stock in a particular company. In the bar, Crocker encounters evangelist-turned-nightclub singer Reno Sweeney (Olivia Russell).

Sweeney thinks Crocker is in love with her: he’s treated her with respect and kindness, hasn’t made unwanted advances or touched her inappropriately. She’s sure it’s love.

Actually, it’s not. It’s friendship.

Ryan Swain, Olivia Russell, Alric Davis, and Taylar Lewis. Photo by Justin D. Knight.
Ryan Swain, Olivia Russell, Alric Davis, and Taylar Lewis.
Photo by Justin D. Knight.

Crocker is in love with another gal who got away: Hope Harcourt (Jasmine January). He’s unaware that she’s a society celebutante – the Paris Hilton of her day. And, she’s engaged to be married to the hoity-toity Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Sideeq Heard). They are sailing to London and plan to marry aboard the S.S. American while en route.

Sweeney informs Crocker of his love’s marriage plans.

Meanwhile, Public Enemy #13 Moonface Martin (Alric Davis) and his accomplice Erma (Kita Grayson) are trying to flee the country with Snake Eyes, Public Enemy #1.

Complicating things, the S.S. American’s captain (Bibi Mama) is obsessed with having celebrities aboard. The papparazi buzzing around the pier are hungry to photograph someone important – and passengers on the ship want to be seen with celebrities. It justifies the high price they’ve paid for the luxury voyage.

The show roars into full-throttle when the curtains open to reveal the impressive stage set designed by Michael C. Stepowany and lit by Lighting Designer TW Starnes.

The main piece is the multi-level bridge of the S.S. America. A double staircase leads to an upper level. On the top level is the orchestra, directed by e’Marcus Harper-Short. Bert Cross II is the musical arranger.

If the only thing the audience saw or heard all evening was the “boat band,” it would have been worth the price of admission. The musicians were superb.

The set smoothly segues from the bridge to several staterooms and a ship’s brig simply by lowering and raising panels, or by pushing a small set onstage. Cast members dressed as sailors silently placed and removed furniture and props between scenes.

The costumes, designed by Brandee Mathies, were impressive. They were true to the period and seemingly custom-fit to each cast member. The men’s suits were beautifully tailored – bearing hand-stitched lapel detailing and stylistic sophistication that modern, mass market suits don’t have. The women’s garments were a delight – some cast members, like the showgirls Purtiy (Monaye Darke), Chastity (Colby Muhammad), Charity (Alexus Jones) and Virtue (Alexia Maree) had multiple costume changes, all designed to show off their curves, and allow them to display generous views of their showgirl legs. Their garments capture the era’s rapture with curve caressing bias cuts, silk or rayon crepes and devore (burnout velvet) patterned fabrics.

The show is performed not just on the stage set, but in the aisles.

Cast members danced in the aisles en route to boarding the ship. Chorus lines performed in the aisles – with plenty of eye contact with audience members.

Seemingly every member of the cast was born wearing tap shoes – and, in one of several rousing dances, the theme song “Anything Goes,”choreographed by Royce Zackerythey, tapped their way into the audience’s hearts.

The ensemble was not above some daredevil antics: one cast member is tossed high into the air. She performs a mid-air split, and is (whew!) caught safely by her castmates. All without popping any of her garters.

The lead characters’ voices are beautiful, exquisite and emotional. Several will probably be Grammy Award winners a few years from now.

Olivia Russell is the belter, sharing high notes with Swain in “I Get A Kick Out Of You” and “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.”

Russell shares “Friendship” with Davis, and leads in “Anything Goes.”

Swain solos with “Easy To Love,” and shares “It’s De-Lovely” with Jasmine January.

Do see this show before it sails away. It is “De-Lightful!”

The cast of 'Anything Goes.' Photo by Justin D. Knight.
The cast of ‘Anything Goes.’ Photo by Justin D. Knight.

Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.

Anything Goes plays through March 14, 2015 at the Ira Aldridge Theater – 2455 6th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them at the box office or online

Remaining shows are on March 14, 2015 at 2:30 p.m and March 10 – 14, 2015 at 7:30 p.m.March 10 is a “pay what you can” performance at 7:30 p.m., with a minimum ticket price of $1. Tickets must be purchased at the Ira Aldridge Theater box office, which opens at 3 p.m.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1555.gif

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Wendi Winters
Wendi Winters is a writer, reporter, columnist and photographer - and a former NYC public relations executive. A good portion of her career has been in public relations - backed by solid experience in fashion retailing, wholesaling, textiles, marketing, advertising, design and promotion. She owned her own successful fashion public relations/advertising/special events/runway show production firm for seven years. As a journalist, she was the first freelancer to bring a journalism award home to The Capital - and then earned two more awards. Since May 2013, Ms. Winters has been a full time staff member at Capital Gazette Communications. Prior to that, she freelanced for the company for twelve years. Including her three weekly columns, she writes more than 250 articles annually. Her writing byline has appeared in Details Magazine, What's Up? Annapolis Magazine, and numerous others. She's been a feature writer for Associated Press Special Features and for Copley News Service. For years, her fashion critic columns ran in the NYC weeklies Manhattan Spirit and Our Town. Since moving to this area in 1999, as a D.C./Baltimore-area theatre critic, her reviews appeared in Theatre Spotlight and The Review. Plus, she was a Helen Hayes Awards nominator for two terms. Mother of four, she continues to be active as a Girl Scout leader and a regional church youth advisor. You bet she can make a mean S'More!

1 COMMENT

  1. My neice Olivia Russell is DA BOMB!!! I have known Liv since she came fresh out of her mother’s womb! She and my daughter are best friends and have known each other since the tender age of 2 & 4 months old (True Playpen pals) She is like a daughter to me and I am SO VERY PROUD OF HER!!! She has exquisite talent and will DEF go far in her rise to stardom!!! Kudos to her Mom (Anita Russell) a dear friend and like a sister to me…for a job well done!! Congrats baby girl! Love ya very much Always. Bridgemom!!!

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