Of Thee I Sing
Encores at NY City Center - May 2006
Review by John Kenrick
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Oh, what a joy it is to see a classic musical done with the style, verve, and sheer love that Encores has lavished on Of Thee I Sing! It has been seventy-five years since this show became the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, back in a sweet bygone time when that esteemed award was not "up for Rent." Two years ago, a handsome but unsatisfying revival at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse left many wondering if Of Thee I Sing was past reviving. Well, the folks at Encores have proven that this classic still packs an entertaining wallop -- and all it took was a cast and creative team that understands how to handle that rarest of theatrical animals, a timeless musical satire.
Of Thee I Sing's 1931 libretto by Morrie Ryskind and George S. Kaufman spoofs the way American politicians use non-issues to manipulate public opinion -- a subject that is actually far more timely now. Today's theatre going public is all too familiar with the idea of a President willing to "do any dirty work" to get his way, and with a Congress that would impeach a President on a trivial charge. What was far-fetched fun in 1931 is the stuff of recent headlines in 2006! Throw in an irresistible score by no less than George and Ira Gershwin, with such gems as "Because," "Who Cares?" and the stirring title tune -- and as Ira so often put it, who could ask for anything more?
Well, Encores gives us that more in the form of director John Rando, who pulled all the elements of this production together with a clear understanding of how to treat vintage material. Instead of presenting it as a museum piece, Rando keeps the pacing and tone fresh. Beloved musical director Paul Gemignani and his fine orchestra make every number a thrill, and the handsome settings by John Lee Beatty and exquisite lighting by Paul Miller make this staging look as good as it sounds. The real revelation here comes courtesy of choreographer Randy Skinner, whose electrifying tap numbers give a whole new energy to the material. Anyone who doesn't think Of Thee I Sing is a dance show had better think again! With only two weeks of rehearsals, Skinner has turned several numbers into rip-roaring tap-fests -- and talented lead dancers Jeffry Denman and Mara Davi kick up some genuine stardust to make it all happen.
It has been far too long since an Encores cast was so uniformly superb. As conniving politicos, Broadway stalwarts Michael Mulhern, Jonathan Freeman, Wayne Duvall and the ever-marvelous Lewis J. Stadlen consistently turn little moments into sweet comic treasures. As the French Ambassador, David Pittu is a glorious, over the top, Napoleonic hoot, making the minor song "Illegitimate Daughter" a showstopper. Jenny Powers is a visual and vocal knockout as Diana Devereaux, a disgruntled would-be First Lady -- I only hope Broadway can find roles worthy of this new, dazzling talent! Jennifer Laura Thompson showcases a sweet soprano voice and manic comic sensibility as Mary Turner, who wins a President's hand just because she can bake corn muffins. As President John P. Wintergreen, Victor Garber is every inch a musical theatre star in his element, capturing the hilarity of the script and doing delightful vocal justice to every song. How great it is to see and hear him in the kind of first-class role he richly deserves!
In one of the most surprising and triumphant performances I have seen in years, Jefferson Mays steals the show as Vice-President Alexander Throttlebottom. Justly acclaimed for his recent Tony-winning performance in I Am My Own Wife, Mays here reveals himself to be a deft, even irresistible musical comedian. This role, custom-tailored for Victor Moore, is far beyond the comic abilities of most actors today -- but Mays makes this part totally his own. By the second act, he has the audience giggling with anticipation every time he steps on stage. Aside from handling the dialogue with flawless taste and timing, he also proves a bona fide master of physical shtick. Someone out there, write this magical man a great new musical comedy!
When Encores hits a home run, it resounds all over New York, and that's exactly what happened with this marvelous revival of Of The I Sing. After staying to cheer on Mr. Gemignani and his orchestra one more time, I overheard a young woman in the audience say to a companion, "This wasn't just fun . . .it was exciting!" Amen to that! Would to heaven that any of this season's crop of new Broadway musicals had even half the joy and melody of this Encores production!