Politics these days is no laughing matter. Not that late-night talk show hosts and playwrights can't find jokes in the foibles and idiosyncrasies of our current politicos, but aren't many people too angry today to be satisfied by any parody or satire not drenched in blood? What hope is left for simple, good-natured ribbing?
The Encores! concert production of Of Thee I Sing, which is playing at City Center through Monday, reaffirms that generic satire can flourish in a more cynical, less-forgiving climate than the one it was written for. Assuming, that is, it was written well in the first place; this one was. Whether it's done full justice here, as directed by John Rando, is another matter.
George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind's libretto bursts with timeless appeal, tackling political expediency, corruption, and the buffoonish nature of the French - all concerns as valid now as when the show premiered in 1931. And if the score, by George and Ira Gershwin, is even more of its time, with its spinning combination of political anthems, Tin Pan Alley pop, and mock-Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, it too reminds us that great scores - like great political satire - don't date easily. But to eliminate any possibility of creaking, the show needs a director who can weave these elements into a cohesive, hilarious whole.
That director isn't Rando, who has a hefty history with Encores!, and won a 2002 Tony for his direction of Urinetown, but has never displayed a knack for musical focus or basic comic shaping. (For proof, I submit his 2002 Dance of the Vampires and this season's The Wedding Singer.) Of Thee I Sing requires both to thrive; it gets neither here. In both the dialogue scenes and the songs , Rando's staging and Randy Skinner's choreography lack the crackling comic energy needed to keep the show hot.
The story is significantly silly, about the campaign and first term of presidential hopeful John P. Wintergreen (Victor Garber), who's running on a platform of love. The most gorgeous women from all 48 states will convene in Atlantic City for a beauty contest, and whoever wins will become Wintergreen's first lady. Provided, of course, he wins the election, though that's never much in doubt. What's more troubling is that the contest's winner, Diana Devereaux (Jenny Powers), doesn't take the prize.
That honor goes to Wintergreen's aide, Mary Turner (Jennifer Laura Thompson), whom Wintergreen learns he truly loves after sampling her delectable corn muffins. This sets off a firestorm of controversy that sears the second act, eventually finding the French ambassador (David Pittu) speaking on behalf of the illegitimately legitimate Devereaux and condemning Wintergreen for... Well, the exact specifics aren't important: They're merely the vehicle for two hours of politically themed fun.
In theory. But with book scenes that plod under Rando's supervision, Garber's stolidly nervous Wintergreen (who registers more as perturbed than tightly wound), Thompson's unconvincing daffy domesticity, and Jenny Powers lacking both the comedic credentials and operetta-weight voice necessary for Devereaux, there's never much at stake. Most of the supporting performances - which include Wayne Duvall and Lewis J. Stadlen as Wintergreen's token Irishman and Jew respectively, and Michael Mulheren as an influential media kingpin - do little to help.
At least Jeffry Denman and Mara Davi, as two dancing Wintergreen staffers, lighten up the interstitial festivities (no longer scene changes) by leading some fine dancing in numbers like "Love is Sweeping the Country" and "Hello, Good Morning." Pittu's a riot as the giddily Gallic ambassador; Jefferson Mays as Alexander Throttlebottom, the meddlesome milquetoast selected to be vice-president, finds tons of warmhearted comedy in the eternal underdog both accidentally and intentionally kept in the shadows.
The real glory (the raison d'etre) of the production is of course those glorious Gershwin tunes. From the minor key march "Wintergreen for President" to a series of bouncy numbers in Atlantic City trumpeting the joys of flash over substance, the patriotically romantic title song, and ridiculous senatorial and judicial procedural numbers, this is a wonderfully rich score. It's thrillingly played by Paul Gemignani's 31-piece orchestra, with acoustical results (and restrained amplification) the best I've yet heard at Encores!.
But the book is no slouch, either, and shouldn't be treated as one. While certain lines pack a fair punch in Rando's conception, the cast and staging don't encourage as many laughs as are possible. This is the second local production of Of Thee I Sing I've seen in recent years; the last was at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, in fall of 2004, and it proved more than Rando's that this show can still work better sharp than soft.
As it is here, there are chuckles but few guffaws, and the show's point - of how easy the overly powerful can put things over on the public - isn't made as incisively or as humorously as it could be. This is a musical, after all, that turns on the question of which is more important, corn muffins or justice. In Of Thee I Sing, the choice is clear, but Encores! faltering with a show that should be a natural for the format suggests a lack of justice in real life, too.
New York City Center Encores!