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Political musical from the '30s

Fisher Center, Bard College
08/01/2008 -  and 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 August
George and Ira Gershwin: Of Thee I Sing
John Bolton (John P. Wintergreen), Amy Justman (Mary Turner), Amanda Flynn (Diana Deveraux), Andy Gale (Alexander Throttlebottom), Marcus DeLoach (The French Ambassador), Brian Russell (Louis Lippman), Doug Shapiro (Francis X. Gilhooly), Rich Silverstien (Matthew Arnold Fulton), Tom Treadwell (Senator Robert E. Lyons), John Deyle (Senator Carver Jones), Chad Harlow (Sam Jenkins), Gretchen Bieber (Miss Benson), Michael Dantuono (Chief Justice)
James Bagwell (Conductor)
Will Pomerantz (Director, Choreographer), Louisa Thompson (Set Design), Carol Bailey (Costume Design), Justin Townsend (Lighting Design)

The Fisher Center’s 400-seat Theater Two is the venue for a revival of George and Ira Gershwin’s 1931 political satire Of Thee I Sing, the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The title is a line from the patriotic song My Country “tis if Thee”, sung to the tune also used for the British national anthem.

Here is the plot: ultra-cynical operatives of a political party (“Republican in the north, Democratic in the south”) scheme to appeal to the electorate’s hearts - and definitely not their intelligence - to put their candidate, John P. Wintergreen, in the White House. To distract voters from serious issues an injection of glamour and romance is called for, and Wintergreen agrees to marry the winner of a special beauty contest. However he meets up with a wholesome young woman, Mary Turner, who inadvertently seduces him with her perfect corn muffins. He proposes to her in front of the huge crowd at the party convention and the voters are won over. But the spurned beauty contest winner, a determined southern belle named Diana Deveraux, persistently pops up with her grievance. She is found to be a Bonaparte and the French ambassador makes it an international incident. At just the right moment Mary is delivered of twins, Miss Deveraux is married off to the Vice-President, and everyone gets to sing Posterity is just around the corner.

The opening scene has a bit too much spoken dialogue which makes for a slow start, but once the first song come along the piece springs into non-stop action. John Bolton is Wintergreen and here is a performer who can project insincerity in myriad ways and this makes him ideal for the role. Amy Justman has the scrubbed wholesomeness for the virtuous Mary Turner, and Amanda Flynn plays the relentless Miss Deveraux to the hilt. Andy Gale seems born to play the hapless Vice-President, a man who everyone wants to - and does - forget about, until at the last moment a use for him is found. Marcus DeLoach is the perfect cartoonish French ambassador. The various senators, judges and political operatives are deftly portrayed, and an ensemble of nine cleverly fill a multitude of small roles. The 12-member orchestra under James Bagwell provides the requisite high level of pizzazz.

Satire can turn relentless and unfunny, but the action in this piece frequently leaps into a realm of near-absurdity, as when the French ambassador enters accompanied by two frenetic gendarmes and a quote from Gershwin’s An American in Paris. The musical’s book is by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, and it frequently gives more than a hint of the zaniness they were soon to conjure up for the Marx Brothers in their landmark films. Will Pomerantz skillfully puts the cast through their lively paces.

For a production of just nine performances one does not expect the full gloss of the modern big-budget musical. In this case there is a lot of unfinished lumber in the set - but it fluidly accommodates the required set changes. Another up-to-date element (blessedly) missing is amplification which can give the impression that the performers are lip-synching. (Actually, there is some amplification but only in one scene, where Wintergreen proposes to Mary at Madison Square Gardens; the sound design for the scene is effectively droll.)

No attempt is made to update the material, and this really isn’t needed. The few jokes with sexual innuendo fall totally flat. The many references to alcohol (for example, everyone in Washington, including the members of the Supreme Court, carries a hip flask) are amusing when one remembers that the work was produced during Prohibition. It stands as a period piece which maintains a lot of its vitality and a still-relevant theme. Its last (and only) Broadway revival was in 1952 and a major re-mount today would be salutary.

Michael Johnson



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