Of Thee I Sing
Paper Mill Playhouse - Millburn, NJ - Sept. 2004
Review by John Kenrick
(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions. All the photos below are used with the permission of Paper Mill Playhouse.)
Is the nasty back and forth of the presidential campaign getting you down? Not to worry -- help is on the way! Paper Mill Playhouse has reached into the vaults of musical comedy history to strike a blow for America, sanity, and corn muffins too. And it all comes laced with songs by no less than George and Ira Gershwin. As Ira himself was known to phrase it, who could ask for anything more? Well, actually, I could -- but more on that later.
It was the first musical ever to win the Pulitzer Prize, one of the greatest hits of the 1930s, with a tuneful score by the Gershwins and an acclaimed libretto by comic geniuses George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind -- but could Of Thee I Sing still amuse after more than seventy years? The only Broadway revival fizzled out back in 1952, and an all-star 1987 concert and recording inspired no further productions. Few people even recognize the title today. So it takes some nerve to mount the first professional New York area staging in over half a century. Sure, it was a timely choice during a presidential election year, but would the period satire still win laughs? And what would cutting edge director Tina Landau make ofthis vintage material?
Well, Paper Mill's gamble has paid off in a visually dazzling Of Thee I Sing, packed with fresh energy and surprising goodwill. Living in an era when political humor is as mean spirited as most election campaigns, we tend to forget that there was a time when satire was a finely tuned art form. In spoofing presidential politics, the authors of Of Thee I Sing saw no reason to zero in on any particular person or party. They wrote equal opportunity zingers, merrily burlesquing the insanities of our federal system in a way everyone could enjoy -- even office seekers.
Much of our system has remained the same, so most of the humor in this show still works. In particular, the main point, that elections are won on emotions rather than issues, is more relevant now than ever! The plot involves smarmy presidential candidate John P. Wintergreen, who wins on a "Love" platform by promising to wed the woman he loves -- but only if elected. He carries every state in the union and marries his beloved Mary, but finds life in the White House is no picnic. When a spurned beauty contestant (don't ask) sues for alienation of affections, a sympathetic US Senate threatens impeachment, but in the nick of time, love (with deliciously improbable inevitability) saves the day.
Yes, the plot line wears thin at times, but that's the nature of the piece. Are the satirical targets up to date? Self-serving politicians who avoid real issues, distracting gullible voters with an irrelevant hot button emotional talking point "that everybody is interested in and that doesn't matter a damn" -- sounds like today's headlines to me! Heck, George W. Bush and the rest of his team at LIES-R-US could take a few pages from Of Thee I Sing's libretto. At least then they might give the American people a few intelligent laughs amid all the witless, deadly deceptions. But I digress. . .
Walt Spangler's provide eye-popping color and many witty, abstract touches -- the Senate doesn't look nearly as good (or as funny) on C-Span. The sets benefit from highly effective computer-animated projections created by Jan Hartley. James Schuette's costumes are sleek, stylish and period perfect, and Scott Zielinski's lighting is superlative. Choreographer Joey Pizzi offers some wonderful and refreshing cliché-free dance numbers, adding a tremendous oomph to the entire production. These were all new names to Paper Mill audiences, and one hopes they will be back.
Director Tina Landau has wisely opted to trust the material, leaving the book and score essentially uncut (the overture has been abbreviated) and presenting it in a straightforward, period-friendly manner. This is particularly effective in the ensemble scenes and numbers, which radiate breezy fun with an occasional sheen of refreshing insanity. Frankly, a bit of trimming would have been a good idea. After seventy years, some of the minor songs and specific irrelevant character traits detract from the overall sense of fun. But Landau deserves major applause for suggesting this revival and seeing it through to such a handsome realization.
At its best, this is one hell of a score. When this golden-voiced cast launches into "Love Is Sweeping the Country," "Because," "Who Cares?" or the irresistible title tune, you get an all too rare chance to hear George and Ira Gershwin's songs as originally intended -- performed live, onstage. Even when they leap into nonsensical discussions of dimpled knees or corn muffins, the sense of fun carries you along. And oh, the delicious idea of a Senate roll call that ends because someone "simply can't be bothered when the names don't rhyme" -- what a joyous bit of madness! One or two numbers could be pruned without doing the overall fabric any harm -- "I Was the Most Beautiful Blossom" is far too long, and "A Kiss For Cinderella" seems a waste of time. Either could be replaced by other songs form the Gershwin catalog -- heaven knows, the leads could use another love song.
Those leads are handled here with an abundance of talent. As Wintergreen, Ron Bohmer has the good looks and disarming smile of a presidential candidate, coupled with a soaring singing voice that no US president could ever lay claim to. Garrett Long is a knockout as the secretary he falls for, radiating stylish period glamour and offering a luscious, crystalline soprano guaranteed to please the heart (and ears) of any music lover. As bumbling Vice-President Throttlebottom, Wally Dunn sometimes misses the comic requirements, but Sarah Knowlton is a musical and visual pleasure as a jilted Southern belle.
The ensemble is attractive and bursting with energy. Sean Palmer and JoAnn M. Hunter play White House aide, and Fred Berman (who was riveting earlier this year in the Public Theatre's revival of The Normal Heart) delivers a daring, over the top performance as the cartoonish French Ambassador. Musical director Tom Helm gets major credit for the flawless ensemble diction -- every Ira Gershwin couplet came through clearly. Well, almost all. Sound designer Duncan Robert Edwards had a few noticeable equipment problems during the first act on opening night, but they seemed to clear up after intermission.
Much as I enjoyed seeing this Of Thee I Sing, I must confess that something seems missing. The cast is solid, the production excellent, the staging sound . . . but all the fun never translates into genuine excitement. It is not the material, which still wins plenty of laughs. Maybe this show, which was designed as a star vehicle, requires major stars. Like it or not, star quality can make a real difference. Audiences with a passion for theatre or for the music of the Gershwins will certainly enjoy this fine production -- but I can't help feeling (Ira forgive me) that there is more to ask for.
Hey, enough carping! Let's look at the key issues. Laughs are increasingly precious things these days, and Of Thee I Sing delivers them like no other candidate I know. Great showtunes are in even shorter supply, and this show gives you a full evening of Gershwin -- my kind of platform! In fact, this is a delightful must-see for anyone who is serious about musical theatre. Paper Mill's Of Thee I Sing offers us a chance to laugh at politics without taking sides. It is also a glorious reminder of that distant time when the once-illustrious Pulitzer Prize was not up for Rent.
This limited run ended on October 17, 2004.