Through Dec. 23
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When out actor Ben Gunderson was cast to play the ship’s purser in Arena Stage’s irresistible production of composer Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes,” he didn’t know the musical comedy very well. But after just a couple rehearsals, the 1934 classic’s charms become clear.
“It’s a full meal, a real confection,” he says. “Earnest love story mixed with vaudeville/burlesque-esque scenes. It really pulls from a lot of genres and smashes them together in a surprising way that’s densely comedic and earnestly joyful and romantic.”
And so, it is. “Anything Goes’” ridiculously brilliant score is crammed Porter hits like “You’re the Top,” “It’s De-Lovely,” “Anything Goes,” “I Get a Kick Out of You” and more. The madcap plot is secondary to the sublime songs, but here it is: The ocean liner S.S. American sets sail from New York to England carrying a mélange of café society including nightclub singer/evangelist Reno Sweeney, her young stockbroker pal Billy Crocker who’s in pursuit of debutante Hope Harcourt who’s engaged to be married to wealthy Lord Oakleigh. For extra silliness throw in a gangster and his moll, a couple stowaways, a few leggy chorines and a tap-dancing crew. Farce and romance ensue.
Gunderson’s decision to leave New York for D.C. a year and a half ago, wasn’t particularly tortured. He and his partner of three years, native Venezuelan Mauricio Pita (director of education at GALA Theatre) literally shaved their heads and took the plunge.
In addition to playing the purser, Gunderson understudies Billy Crocker (here played by Corbin Bleu of “High School Musical” fame).
Since coming to town, Gunderson has had luck with directors named Molly (though spelled differently). His first D.C. gig was “Still Life with Rocket” at Theater Alliance. An innovative portrait of a damaged family conceived and directed by Mollye Maxner, it received seven Helen Hayes nominations (including Outstanding Lead Actor for Gunderson) and won Outstanding Production of a Play. And he’s currently enjoying a terrific run in Molly Smith’s “Anything Goes.”
Working with Smith on “Anything Goes” has been a dream, he says.
“We spent a full week on table (learning the script), and that’s unusual for a musical comedy. That’s a real gift. The entire cast — even if you’re not in that scene — was included. It’s about family building and that certainly certain influenced the feeling in the room and on stage. Molly made always made things positive, respectful and fun.”
Gunderson also appeared in director Alan Paul’s “Pajama Game” at Arena last season and more recently Paul’s well-received and heavily attended “Camelot” at Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Modestly describing himself as “an actor who moves,” Gunderson says, “There are some extraordinary dancers in ‘Anything Goes.’ I think three of them have been Rockettes. They have a polish that’s alien to me.” But in fact, he’s a slim, elegant dancer who stands out in an ensemble.
Prior to D.C., Gunderson, 32, was based in New York. He was in the Broadway and 25th anniversary touring companies of “Les Misérables,” which led to appearances on The Academy Awards, The Tony Awards and “America’s Got Talent.” Being on the road agrees with him up to a point. “I saw the entire country and paid off my sizeable student loan. But after a while, the Marriott looks like the Double Tree looks like the Days Inn. You’re craving a personalized space.”
Any romance on the road?
“When we’d sit down in a city from four to seven weeks, I’d go on a couple dates when I was single. My personal life was on hold and I was craving connection outside of the people I was working and living with. I had a few flings but nothing serious. But others met people in show and married.”
Growing up in Fargo, N.D., Gunderson found ample opportunities to sing and act.
“I was brought up Lutheran and back when I was religious — I’m not anymore — I sang in the church choir. Then I got into choral singing in the fifth grade. It was great place for my little closeted heart to express itself.”
His high school summers included classes at Trollwood Performing Arts School.
“It was a month of dance, acting and music, ending with a main stage outdoor musical in the park. That’s where I was myself. It was a magical place.”
During the first week of orientation at the University of North Caroline School of the Arts, he came out.
“Fellow acting students were like, ‘You’re gay, right?’ I couldn’t say no, so suddenly I was out.”
The summer following his freshman year, he came out to his family.
“I needed authenticity in my life. After some work, my parents were supportive. They adore Mauricio.”
In Washington, Gunderson has found a professional community that’s accessible and kind, he says. Still, he occasionally experiences itchy feet.
“But then I remember, I have a great boyfriend. We’ve adopted a dog and have nice apartment near Meridian Hill Park. I don’t see me leaving anytime soon.”