As Thousands Cheer

The Drama Department, NYC - June 1998
Review by John Kenrick

The Off-Broadway revival of As Thousands Cheer has the critics buzzing, and with good reason – its nothing short of sensational. I am a devoted fan of Irving Berlin and Moss Hart, and I marveled at how well their 65 year old musical satire still works.

I confess, knowing something about the world of the early 1930's adds to the fun, but the deftly edited skits stick to people most everyone will have heard of – Ghandi, Joan Crawford, the Rockefellers, etc. If you don't think a routine about Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Hoover could possibly be funny, wait until you see them making crank calls on their last night in the White House. Better yet, catch Josephine Baker giving her maid a heavy dose of attitude – you'll have to remind yourself this was written in 1933!

Director Christopher Ashley, who did fine work with Das Barbecu and the Encores concert version of Lil' Abner proves here that he's ready for damn near anything. Someone find this man another musical fast! Of course, he has the almost unfair advantage of the most delicious cast of musical comedians seen on any New York stage in years.  Howard McGillin, Mary Beth Peil, Kevin Chamberlin and Judy Kuhn are solid musical stage veterans, and they each know how to work this material for all it is worth. When McGillin and Kuhn led the company through a whackily optimistic rendition of "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee," I thought I would levitate. Two skits later, when Ms. Peil and the men tore through a torrid "Heat Wave," it was official – here was the kind of warm euphoria that only occurs when real theatrical pros are having a ball with wonderful material. This is what musical-lovers live for, and As Thousands Cheer is ninety solid minutes of it.

There are two surprises in the cast. B.D. Wong, who is best remembered for his stunning performance in the play M. Butterfly, proves himself a masterful singer and comic. New York had heard that his performance in the title role of Peter Pan knocked Kansas City for a loop – now its our turn, and what a delight. The other surprise is Paula Newsome, making her first featured appearance in this town into a real knockout. Her understated rendition of "Suppertime" makes it all the more heart-wrenching, and her sense of comedy had the audience in stitches. Watch for more of this lady in the future!

So, As Thousands Cheer is the best musical theatre news of the summer. The second-best news is that there is talk of following its sold-out run at the Greenwich House with an open end run elsewhere. So if you haven't seen this dee-licious bit of fun, you may have another chance soon. Three thousand cheers for The Drama Department and this glorious production! Now if only someone will take the hint and write a new topical revue with the same sense of fun – hey, in a world where Victor Hugo musicals run for more than a decade, anything can happen!

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