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Of Thee I Sing
The very serious issues and the nastiness of the current presidential campaign have seeded a spate of sober, well-meaning political films and plays. But leave it to a 1931 musical cartoon about depression era presidential and vice-presidential elections by George S. Kaufman & Morrie Ryskind, with delectably hummable and sardonic songs by George Gershwin & Ira Gershwin, to skewer the flimflam with wit and humor.
Director Tina Landau's revival of Of Thee I Sing recaptures the play's frothy silliness and does honor to the musical pleasures that range from ballads to Gilbert and Sullivan-like patter songs. Abetted by peppy choreography, terrific stagecraft and a bracingly big cast, this is likely to unite Republicans, Democrats and undecided voters. Well, probably not -- unless all the candidates, their running mates and managers take time out from their acrimonious campaign to spend two hours at the Papermill Playhouse.
While Of Thee I Sing was the first musical ever to win a Pulitzer Prize, it was the second polical musical of the 1931-32 Broadway season. Moss Hart and Irving Berlin's Face the Music, which opened first, shone the spotlight on New York Mayor Jimmy Walker and his corrupt administration. Of Thee I Sing took broader, less specific aim at ineffective politicians, and the power of their vacuous campaign slogans to appeal to a public more interested in their private lives than their public policies.
The plot in a sound bite is this: None too bright John P. Wintergreen wants to be President. His credentials are, to put it mildly, vague. His cigar smoking advisers cook up a scheme to give the campaign a sure-fire victory theme-- love. The plan is for an attention-getting national beauty contest, its winner to become Mrs. Wintergreen. Wintergreen reneges on his commitment and rejects the contest winner, a sexy Southern belle named Diana Devereaux, for his corn muffin baking aide, Mary Turner. The triumph of corn muffins over justice sees him simultaneously sworn in and married on the Capitol steps. Act two finds the Wintergreens ensconced in the Oval Office but the ghost of the rejected Southern belle haunts the presidency when she turns out to be a descendant of Napoleon. The threat to U.S-French relations by Wintergreen's unwillingness to leave Mary for the litigious Diana brings a move to impeach Wintergreen and replace him with the heretofore ignored vice-president Alexander Throttlebottom. Naturally, all ends well.
All this silliness is carried out with great aplomb by the cast. Ron Bohmer and Garrett Long are well-matched as the presidential couple, and sing well, especially the patriotic title song and "Who Cares?" Wally Dunn's Veep is an adorable nonentity, Sarah Knowlton plays Diane Devereaux with larger than life magnolia blossom sexiness.
Adam Grupper, Nick Corley, Richard Poe, Hal Blankenship, and Herndon Lackey ably pull the strings to carry Wintergreen to victory, with Grupper especially amusing in his homage to Groucho Marx portrayal. Fred Berman's French Ambassador is the undisputed show stopper. His "The Illegitimate Daughter " and his exit are priceless.
Sean Palmer and JoAnn M. Hunter seem to have been cast as two of Wintergreen's aides mainly to showcase Joey Pizzi's choreography-- which they do with pizzazz. The company not only does well by the the "Of Thee I Sing" reprise, and "Love is Sweeping the Country," but the less instantly recognizable tunes.
The red white and blue color scheme that predominates Walt Spangler's snazzy scenic design (which includes banner draped walls all around the theater and a 48-star flag curtain) and James Schuette's parade of snappy costumes contribute to the political aura. Projection designer Jan Hartley has brilliantly translated Wintergreen's triumphant ascent to the White House into a newsreel. But perhaps the most inspired visual touch comes when four actors, each attached to a look-alike dummy, play eight Supreme Court judges.
Of course Of Thee I Sing preceded the trend for fully integrated musicals that came with Oklahoma and is therefore as much operetta as musical. Director Landau has wisely refrained from tinkering with this but has allowed the show remain true to what it is, letting the Kaufman and Ryskind script make its own case for its timeliness and endurance -- and its depressing parallels to today's politics.
While Hillary Clinton refused to be seen as a cookie-baking presidential mate, the current race might just be close enough for Teresa Heinz Kerry or Laura Bush to pull out their muffin pans. A basic recipe calls for 3/4 cup all-purpose flour, 3/4 cup yellow cornmeal, 1 tablespoon sugar, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 large egg, 1 cup buttermilk, 1/4 cup butter, melted. The instructions: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease muffin tins or line with paper cups. Combine flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a bowl. Mix with a fork. In another bowl, whisk egg until smooth. Whisk in buttermilk and melted butter to combine. Pour into flour mixture and stir until evenly moistened. Fill muffin cups three-quarters full and bake 15 to 20 minutes.
Michael Gennaro, whose first producing season at Paper Mill Of Thee I Sing represents, has lined up an interesting season of some things old and some things new. In the something old category, a production of another old musical, She Loves Me (October 27th to December 5th) and a play popular at many regional theaters, The Drawer Boy February 23 to April 3rd). In the something new category, two new musical adaptations of famous films, Harold & Maude (January 5 to February 6) and The Baker's Wife (April 13 to May 22).
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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