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Friday, March 06, 2015

Of This We Sing

From the Vault Dept.: Contemporaneous with yesterday’s restaurant review was this 2008 appraisal of a rare revival of the Gershwin show “Of Thee I Sing,” presented as part of the Summerscape Festival at Bard College. Political satire has always been a tricky theatrical subject, but this one seems to find fresh support with every administration.


THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES is having woman troubles that threaten to become an international scandal; he is about to be impeached; his wife determinedly stands by him. Obviously too far-fetched to pass for reality, “Of Thee I Sing” proved, when it premiered in 1931, that when satire is crafted with wit, you can get away with a tremendous amount of savagery.

Mitchell Walker, Marcus DeLoach, and Don Whitmore.
Photo by Stephanie Berger
As far as creative kudos go, it’s a dead heat between the book, by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, and the score, by George and Ira Gershwin. The story relentlessly lampoons Presidential politics, and still stands up even though real-life politics have long since outstripped this script for absurdity. There’s a gorgeously hilarious Act Two dialogue between the President and Vice President very reminiscent of the Kaufman-Ryskind work in Marx Brothers vehicles.

The Gershwin score produced fewer hits than any of their other shows – only the song “Who Cares?” has taken on an exterior life – but it’s a fabulous series of set-pieces and songs, with extended sequences that pay deft homage to Gilbert & Sullivan. The show became the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize.

This probably was the summer’s hardest-to-get ticket: the nine performances in the intimate Theater Two at Bard’s Fisher Center sold out quickly. While the original production put half a hundred performers on stage, not counting an eight-piece band, this one had to make do with a cast of 21. But what a cast!

Fresh from the Broadway production of “Curtains,” John Bolton played presidential candidate John P. Wintergreen with a young man’s smile and old-boy chicanery. Amy Justman, from the “Company” revival, is his relentlessly charming true love, Mary.

A tiny remnant of the overture set up an unnecessary framing device involving the character of Alexander Throttlebottom, who, as vice president, is so unrecognizable that he gains entry into the White House only by sneaking in. (Andy Gale channels Jack Gilford in a brilliant turn as the befuddled but ever-likeable fellow.)

Then it’s on to the party convention, where it’s taken 63 ballots to choose a candidate. Wintergreen and his cronies celebrate with drinks (this is a Prohibition-era show) as they formulate a platform – the inspiration for which is suggested by a chambermaid. After money, what matters most to her is love. So Love it shall be, and Wintergreen marry the woman who wins a national beauty contest.

With six bathing suit-clad finalists assembled, the production looks laughably small: “Who Is the Lucky Girl to Be” is meant for a couple of dozen contestants and an equal number of men; Bard’s eleven nevertheless did an enthusiastic job with this charm number, moving well and delivering such Ira Gershwin lyrical gems as “Who is the lucky girl to be?/Who is to leave the bourgeoisie?”

Director Will Pomerantz also choreographed the production, giving his dancers not only wonderful (and wonderfully funny) steps and tableaux but also working in a clever array of props. “Hello, Good Morning” had a “How to Succeed” look in its virtuoso use of rolling desks, rubber stamps and staplers. Tambourines came out in “Posterity,” baby carriages in “Trumpeter, Blow Your Horn” and even corn muffins (a crucial plot point) as Wintergreen and Mary celebrate their engagement.

Small though the Theater Two stage may be, it vacuums up sound as soon as an actor turns or moves upstage. I can’t thank the production enough for doing without the dreaded scourge of amplification, and the style for the most part was presentational enough to ensure intelligibility. But some of the dance numbers left the lyrics very difficult to follow.

And we could have used about 30 percent more energy and conviction from the ensemble. Rehearsal time is costly, but this could have used another couple of days.

Other standouts in the cast were Gretchen Bieber (as Emily Benson) and Chad Harlow (as Sam Jenkins), who performed the specialty dance numbers, like “Love Is Sweeping the Country,” even as they held down very credible characters in the show.

As Wintergreen’s political buddies, Brian Russell, Doug Shapiro, Rich Silverstein, Tom Treadwell and John Doyle not only came across as backroom boys worthy of “Fiorello!” but also doubled (and sometimes tripled) in other roles. As a senator from Massachusetts, Michael Dantuomo cleverly suggested a familiar counterpart.

And the best cameo of all was Marcus DeLoach’s operetta-intensive French Ambassador, who stayed just this side of cartoonish while plausibly mining laughs. Great voice, too.

Stage productions are by definition evanescent, but “Of Thee I Sing” seems to come along at propitious moments. When it premiered, Herbert Hoover was ending an inglorious term; when the show was revived in 1952, Harry Truman had the lowest popularity numbers ever recorded. Until now. Here’s hoping that this production is a harbinger of significant change.

Of Thee I Sing

Songs by George and Ira Gershwin
Book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind
Directed and choreographed by Will Pomerantz
Conducted by James Bagwell
Fisher Performing Arts Center, Bard College, Aug. 2

Metroland Magazine, 7 August 2008

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