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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
I’d Rather Be Right
Hull, Perkins, and Morgenthau were members of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Cabinet back in the 1930s. They were also featured characters in a little-known, feel-good musical written in 1937 by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, with songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, and starring George M. Cohan as FDR. Not too shabby a team, right? Yet the highly touted I’d Rather Be Right opened on Broadway to rather tepid reviews and ran for just over a year, or 290 performances.
Now the Hudson Mainstage Theatre has brought this quaint old chestnut back to life with a sparkling production that stars Joe Joyce as a rambunctious, toothy FDR and Christina Valo and Stephen Vendette as Peggy Jones and Phil Barker, the young couple the president meets in New York’s Central Park. It’s the Fourth of July and the president has come to the park to work on the speech he is about to give to the nation. There he stumbles on Peggy and Phil, who are bemoaning the fact that they can’t get married because Phil’s boss has denied him a raise in these critical economic times. (The 1937 Stock Market Crash was the second worst in U.S. history and lasted for a year.) The country’s prosperity, Phil’s boss has said, hinges on whether the president can finally balance the federal budget.
Enter Secretary of State Hull, Secretary of Labor Perkins, Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau and Postmaster General Farley (Thomas Dolan, Nancy Dobbs Owen, Matt Kubicek, and Tom Walz, respectively) to dream up ways to raise taxes, cut spending, or "sell something." "Do we need Baltimore?" someone asks. These Cabinet members are also introduced to Peggy in "Have You Met Miss Jones?" the only song from this topical musical to become popular enough to survive the closing night curtain.
While taking gentle jibes at some of FDR’s New Deal schemes to bolster the economy, the playwrights introduce a theatrical troupe funded by the WPA (the Work Projects Administration) whose mission it is to entertain "whenever a crowd of three or more gathers." This tacky troupe thereupon presents a musical tableau called “Spring in Vienna” which predates by 64 years but closely resembles the zany "Springtime for Hitler" number in Mel Brooks’ musical, The Producers.
I’d Rather Be Right was written as a Valentine to FDR, who had just begun his second term and was undergoing the jaded scrutiny of the Congress and the Supreme Court. When these august bodies judged that Roosevelt’s New Deal measures had too high a price tag, Roosevelt tried to alter the makeup of the Court, thereby earning the enmity of many. The vitriol of the attacks against him became so intense, in fact, that the newspapers and radios began to suggest that he be impeached. It was at that point that Kaufman and Hart collaborated on this warm and fuzzy paean to the president and the potential crisis was averted.
It is one of the ironies of this production that the frock-coated president was presented as a happy-go-lucky song and dance man. At that point FDR had been in office for five years, but the security around him was so tight that the public had remained unaware that he had been crippled by polio years earlier, and not only could not dance, but could not even stand without aid. Director/Choreographer William Mead has wisely chosen not to update the references but to present a brief glossary in the playbill that explains the times and its concerns. Further, he has obtained the services of some of the best people in their fields: Scenic Designer Victoria Profitt, whose large monochromatic trees bring a cartoon-like Central Park to the Hudson’s diminutive stage, A. Jeffrey Schoenberg, whose costume design make those ugly 1930s fashions almost beautiful, and Jeremy Pivnick, who does his magic with the lighting design.
Special mention should be made of the vocal talents of the 14-member cast, especially the glorious voice of Christina Valo as Peggy, as well as the special comedy talents of Dan Spector, who plays five different parts, including Phil’s boss, Mr. Maxwell.
If you are "of a certain age" you will revel in this antiquated, out-of-fashion musical. And if you are of a younger persuasion, you can still enjoy the theater as it used to be: rip-roaring, flag-waving, and unremittingly uplifting. Just remember, it ain’t no My Fair Lady.