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Election Day

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Still distraught over the results of November's presidential election? Relax - things can always be worse. As if to demonstrate this to the wounded, wary city of New York, a new musical has opened that helps remind you how comforting overseas conflicts and perilous international relations can sometimes be.

That would be Election Day, the brainless and witless new musical that just opened at the American Theatre of Actors. While it's intended by authors Alex Goldberg (book and lyrics) and Joel Stein (music and lyrics) as both a celebration and condemnation of the American political system, this is a show so unfocused, misguided, and offensive to theatrical sensibilities that it often makes it seem as if the terrorists have indeed already won.

Nothing else can satisfactorily explain this show's bizarre offerings: a first-act number set at a State dinner in which six people remove their pants and shake and shimmy around the dining room, as if doing a Macarena choreographed by Susan Stroman; portraits of Presidents James Polk, Warren Harding, and William Henry Harrison dispensing advice to the White House's current occupant in a number called "(Don't) Be Like Us" that's dripping with heavy-bass funk; or a bloody pile-up of endings in the show's last fifteen minutes in which each new plot development (including the last) is harder to swallow than those before it.

Yes, this is a show dripping with mysteries, though how a musical about something as simple as a presidential election got so out of hand is perhaps the most pressing. At first glance, the race between the lecherous Elliott Goodrich (Ian Kahn) and his bumbling, cowboy-like competitor Nathan Burke (Robert Scott Denny) isn't too out of the ordinary. Even a romantic subplot, dealing with Goodrich's son Chadwick (Jeremy Ellison-Gladstone) and new White House intern Heather Rosenbloom (Monica Yudovich), who also might be having an affair with Chadwick's father, at least seems credible musical fodder.

But Goldberg keeps introducing elements that push Election Day into the realm of the eye-rollingly unbelievable. Burke's being manipulated by Macrohard Software founder Will Bates (Rick Kiley) is a weak attempt at humor; Goodrich's wife Fiona (Meghan McGeary) being appointed ambassador to the tiny, cash-strapped nation of Eudemonia - only to discover her own surprising role in one of the country's ancient prophecy - is a dizzyingly unsuccessful attempt to inject full-out fantastic into what is already frustratingly fanciful. By the time Chad's pot-smoking college roommates (Jonathan C. Kaplan and Shane Desmond) help him organize a political revolution in the second act, you're longing for the halcyon moments an hour earlier when Eudemonia's representatives (Bones Rodriguez and Jennifer J. Katz) led the pants-ripping number.

That's as audacious - and memorable - as Election Day gets; Goldberg's jokes and insights fall flat, and Stein's melodies strive to redefine (frequently successfully) the term "repetitive." At least director Laurie Sales keeps the pace up and makes the transitions between scenes as smooth as possible, and Zoe Hamburger's costumes and Aloys Spack's star-spangled set design are painless if unimaginative. At the performance I attended, a few botched cues prevented easy appraisal of Jack Jacobs's lighting design, but sound board operator Carson Kopp deserves plaudits for his valiant efforts to keep as many lyrics as possible unintelligible.

The production is full of lackluster performances, though Ellison-Gladstone and Yudovich, if having no chemistry together, contribute a little youthful zest to the show. Otherwise, Kahn and Denny are stuck playing caricatures of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush; McGeary struggles for recognition under the weight of her non-character; Kiley overplays diabolic evil as Bates (and has a solo so extraneous, even its lead-in dialogue references it); and Tom Richter, playing news reporter Esteban Ramon, brings only a silly accent to his role, which is used only to usher in endless incarnations of the title song and give the show something vaguely akin to a thematic throughline.

Only Michele Ragusa, as one of Goodrich's advisors, makes a real impression. Her acting is solid, and she leads the show's best number, the white spiritual "Hang On Til Tomorrow," with a firmness of voice and conviction that suggest the show might have worked had it been built around her, or any single, identifiable thing. Ragusa's work with that song, and throughout the rest of Election Day, is unimpeachable. The same can't be said about anyone or anything else.

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Election Day
Through January 30
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, 20 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
American Theatre of Actors, 314 West 54th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: 212.868.4444