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A CurtainUp Review
Capitol Steps in the Berkshires
By Elyse Sommer
Question: What in the world are Lirty Dies?
Answer: A little like the Pig Latin kids used to think was the cat's meow for driving their parents crazy. . .and an indispensable part of the shows from Capitol Steps, the political comedy troupe of former DC staffers who translated their straight arrow careers into a successful entertainment franchise. For them Lirty Dies is a sure-fire whammo to the top of the laugh meter, a way to mix national scandals with word-initialization-rejuxtaposition closely following the underlying precepts of harmony, alliteration and innuendo.
What's the result of this linguistic mumbo jumbo? The Capitol Stepper delivering the Lirty Dies routine (Bill VanGrack at my viewing) isn't quite sure what he's saying and the people in the audience aren't quite sure what they're hearing — but for sure they enjoy hearing him whipping his flurds and spewing his screech.
CurtainUp has been following the Steps for almost ten of the more than twenty-five years they've been sending up national and international figures to the tunes of popular show tunes. Our chance to catch up with their latest routines has usually come during their annual visits to an Off-Broadway theater, several times with the group's originators and still the chief writers, Elaina Newport and Bill Strauss the inventor of the Lirty Die routine.
The theater in which we saw these once buttoned-down Capitol Hill folks turned free-wheeling comic attack dogs was not huge in terms of audience capacity but it had a wide, spacious stage. At their new summer home, just a stone's throw from my own headquarters for covering the Berkshire arts and entertainment scene, the Steps prove that they can get big laughs even on a handkerchief sized stage in a below ground level room of the Olmsted, one of the Cranwell resort's residential complexes. It's not an ideal physical setup for either the performers or the audience. A black cloth shower type curtain style arrangement serves as the backstage for the numerous entrances and exits, wig and other costume changes. The rows of straight backed chairs arranged to pack as many people as possible (about 200 the night I attended) into this all-purpose room make for sightlines that leave a lot to be desired. Fortunately, the material and performers are good enough to compensate for the venue's shortcomings.
The five member troupe and their pianist (the cast, rotates weekly, is drawn from a pool of 25 singing jokesters and 3 pianists—Andy Clemence, Michael Forrest, Janet Davidson Gordon, Tracey Stephens, Brad Van Grack and pianist Marc Irwin when I was there) are funny enough to keep you laughing fairly nonstop for 90 minutes. When the laughing stops you can always head up the hill for a bit of Cranwell's luxury ambience with a drink or desert in the elegant mansion that was there when it was a private family estate.
Naturally, bad as G.W. Bush has been for this country, his administration has provided the Steps with an unfailing source of material. Last week all the Bush bashing was zestfully handled by Afy Clemence who was also hilarious in a less news of the week dependent private eye skit.
While Bill is off the hill. Hillary is not only ensconced in the Senate but maneuvering to reoccupy the White House, so the Clinton routines have also lent themselves to endless updating. Immigration, the inept attorney-general and the first female leader of Congress are also on the comic menu. A Shakespearian number that will undoubtedly keep getting tweaked for many a show to come is called "Shamalot." The Hillary specialist I saw, Janet Davidson Gordon, did a spot on Lady Hillary. On the other hand, references to Senator Ted Kennedy's ill-fated car accident are way overdue for retirement.
Characters who have joined the already much mined figures from the nation's scandal capital include Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama (who's still too new to have really emerged as fully developed butt of musical jokes) and Alberto Gonzales, as "The Very Model of a Bad Attorney General, " one of two clever borrowings from Gilbert and Sullivan's rhythms and music.
Although much of the material has already been recorded (CD's available in the lobby, with the performers themselves handling the sales), the Capitol Steps manage to retain that pulled from today's headlines flavor that has endeared them to audiences hungry for a few laughs to relieve the tensions of the dangerous and tragic times we live in. And so it's not a lirty dye to say that what's bad for our country is sure to be good fun for the Capitol Steps and their audiences.
OTHER CAPITOL STEPS SHOWS WE'VE SEEN:
Capitol Steps: It Ain't Over 'Till the First Lady Sings
Capitol Stepls: Unzippin' My Doodah and Other National Priorities
Capitol Steps: Between Iraq and a Hard Place
Capitol Steps: When Bush Comes to Shove
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The Little Mermaid
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Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide