Branson serves up Anything Goes to hungry audiences

There are some shows that are just pure fun. They are inescapable, irresistible, and intoxicating, and when you are in the audience for one of them, you walk out feeling...

...really ...really good.

Moonface (Chas Conacher) and Reno (Julia Smith)
These kinds of shows are like the comfort food of theatre. They wrap you up with a big warm hug and make everything seem brighter through your eyes as if you are looking through an amber lens. On a dark, cold, wet Bay Area night, a show like this can change your perspective on all that surrounds you and warm up the very blood in your veins. Last night, I had the treat of taking a notably longer trek than usual all the way up to Ross in Marin County to get a heaping plate of theatrical comfort food, served hot by the talented people of The Branson School.

Calling upon Cole Porter's classic Anything Goes, the cast and company of this production found a fun, infectious, and charming energy which saturated an already rain-soaked closing-night audience. Immediately in the overture, the audience buzzed with excitement as an incredibly tight orchestra under the direction of Tony Angelo (as well as under the deck of the on-stage ship) set the tone with acrobatic reeds, colorful brass and a solid rhythm section.

Billy (Epstein-Shafir) and Hope (Kudler)
The first act suffered from slow pacing at first, but began to get into a comfortable gear thanks to the work of Julia Smith as Reno Sweeny and Max Epstein-Shafir as Billy Crocker who warmed up into the stylized and rhythmic comedy of the book. Epstein-Shafir's vocal work was impressive, as was his boyish-take on Billy's love-lorn journey onto the ship. Smith went beyond impressive and showed off a set of pipes that made the audience go "gaga" over her, giving Sutton Foster a real run for her money (absolutely no hyperbole intended). In fact, it was the vocal acumen of the entire cast that seduced the audience in the first act, especially in the show's title number.

Sasha Kudler took a more legit approach to her vocal work as the betrothed young-socialite, Hope Harcourt, and married a beautiful vocal performance to some honest and natural moments of want, need, longing and love. She also showed the bubbly enthusiasm of a smitten young lover with Epstein-Shafir during "It's De-lovely", creating a charming package that had the audience talking during intermission.

The comedic power of the show was not in short supply, thanks to the work of Chas Conacher as a elastic and highly-kinetic Moonface Martin, and Katie Colley as a coy and sexually-manipulative Erma. The duo worked so well together, driving the pace of many scenes and making the book come alive. Conacher was particularly adept at making smaller moments memorable with his Commedia Del Arte flavored physicality and fantastic timing. Not to be outdone, Colley should win an award for having too much fun on the stage, taking the role to new heights with her energy and vocal chops.

Erma (Katie Colley) and the sailor quartet
Also highly notable was the incredible work of Cooper Harrington-Fei as Lord Evelyn Oakleigh ("Gypsy In Me" had the audience roaring), Charlotte Guerry in a hilarious female version of the Purser along with Aristo Ambatzidis as the Captain, a wonderful sailor quartet (Sam Baughman, Mike Ryan, Victor Liu and Lucas Mani), and some incredible dance work and hilarious acting moments from Emily Libresco as Virtue along with the rest of the choreographically impressive Angels.

Additional kudos are due to the beautiful costume work of Judy Rheingold, who with the help of the American Conservatory Theatre costume shop created a beautiful costume plot which really helped further the characters and helped tell their story.

The production came together so well that is a real shame that they only ran one weekend. Theatrical productions mature and find themselves after the first weekend, creating even tighter timing, higher character stakes, better sense of space and bigger energy as the cast becomes more comfortable in the natural flow of performance after such a long time in rehearsal where they are focusing on the execution of individual moments. I personally feel that if this cast was allowed to go a second week, the pacing would have tightened so much so that the first act would have been five minutes faster. I understand that sometimes budgets and schedules can't allow it, but this show would have really grown with another weekend of audiences.

As it was, I still got my theatrical comfort food. The songs are firmly stuck in my head, and I am feeling the warm glow of a filling, satisfying, and fun production even the morning after. Well worth the 150 miles of driving through four counties to get that feeling. I am intensely interested to see where these talented performers go after Branson, and to see what the school mounts next year. If it is anything like this, I don't think I will be able to resist making the trek again.

Thank you to Twitter subscriber and FB follower Carole Parker for asking me to come out to see the production! Be sure to visit our Facebook page and to see more photos! Like us while you are there!
4 Responses
  1. Anonymous Says:

    dont forget the wonderful director of the musical MAURA VAUGHN!!!!!


  2. Paul Sawyer Says:

    Yes, a very dedicated educator and author!


  3. Anonymous Says:

    Also, don't forget Nathan Braun and Cameryn Steiger as Elisha and Evangeline. They were great, too! Science teacher, Dennis Duncan also played a fun and important role. Missing in the review also was the fact that some of the dances were choreographed by students and performers, Emily Libresco and Chas Conacher. Branson has amazing talent throughout! It is really too bad that the production did not run for a second weekend.


  4. Paul Sawyer Says:

    Very true. Incredible talent throughout! But as I am sure you are aware, there is a limit to what I can address in each review. I try to stick between 700-900 words before it gets too long for an arguably "quick read". If I praised everyone who was worthy, it would be closer to 1600! Just not enough attention span in today's readers to enjoy the whole article if it gets to that length.


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