Politics can be the stuff of great musicals, like Of Thee I Sing or 1776. It can be the stuff of flop musicals, like 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or Teddy and Alice. It can also be the stuff of mediocre musicals, like The Spickner Spin.
This woozy but well-meaning new show, which is playing as part of the New York International Fringe Festival through August 27, attempts to deconstruct high-powered political spin-doctoring by taking the subject to its furthest imaginable extreme: What would happen if the ultimate P.R. man were able to con a major U.S. city into electing a drunken homeless man its mayor?
Here, the spin artist is Stephen Spickner (Patrick Wetzel) and his pet project is Natty Walker (Michael Jay Henry), whom Spickner bets his fiery rival Susan Stridewell (Seri Johnson) he can get elected on the Capital (read Republican) Party ticket, thus keeping the Liberty (Democratic) Party out of office. All he needs to do is make a bargain with the Capital Party's severe representative Horstein (Richard Rowan) to ensure that power will be correctly placed after the election.
It's a cynical view of society, though one less inherently about politics than the people in it and affected by it, at all levels. The basic concept, however, is ground that has already been heavily trod, most notably in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion and its musical adaptation, My Fair Lady. The creators of this show - Seth Bisen-Hersh (music and lyrics, orchestrations, and musical direction) and Daniel Scribner (book and lyrics) - haven't done quite enough to make it effective as either a transformation story or an insightful political satire. Like many candidates' political statements, The Spickner Spin is fine as long as you don't think too much about it.
The book is concise and carefully constructed, providing a number of legitimate laughs; Scribner has a keen ear for political speak, and his characters utilize it almost frighteningly well. His knack for plotting and characterization is less impressive; he doesn't create much tension or suspense, and his characters frequently seem as if they were rejected from early drafts of Urinetown, or even a musical theatre writer's handbook: The idealistic young woman caught among all the liars and thieves, for example, is Spickner's love interest, Alice Whitehall (Crystal Scott); at times, she bears such an uncanny resemblance to Sarah Brown from Guys and Dolls that you half expect Spickner to offer to take her to Havana.
The score does little more to identify the characters or the play's events in creative ways; despite a few interesting experiments with contrapuntal construction, the music's plodding and repetitive nature don't allow many of the songs to feel as organic to the action as Scribner's book scenes. The title song is especially invasive, more concerned with being a frothy toe-tapper than ideally serving the material at the four points in the show it's used (the opening and closing numbers of both acts). Other numbers represent special interest groups as chorus members in black T-shirts, chronicle a Watergate-style break-in, or inform us that "Anyone Can Get Elected" or what Spickner and Alice consider "A Perfect World." Numbers of particularly inventive motivation are few and far between.
Certainly both Wetzel and Henry would benefit from more individual numbers, though they both seem miscast: Wetzel handles his songs well enough, and has a way with the script's light comedy, but is not charismatic enough to convey the character's supposedly supernatural spin powers; Henry is never believable as the post-transformation Natty. This all casts doubt on Spickner's ability to pull off the show's central ruse, which - for the story's sake - should never be in question. Much better are Scott, Johnson, and particularly Rowan, whose Horstein is perhaps overly Nixonian but is otherwise cunningly realized and superbly sung.
Andrew Henkes provides swift-moving direction and handles the large cast well, though he sometimes stages things too far upstage to be properly seen or heard. (The performers seldom have trouble singing - unamplified - over the ten-piece orchestra, which is conducted by Jeffrey Campos, but they're occasionally difficult to hear in the spoken scenes.) Cheryl Swift's choreography is usually adequate if occasionally too community-theatre for its own good; the costumes, mainly business suits and other professional attire, are designed by Robyn Fisher.
William Duncan's cartoonish design scheme for the sets and props creates an appropriately two-dimensional feel for the black-and-white world of the play's politics. This contributes greatly to the show's lightweight, musical-comedy atmosphere, but only serves as an uncomfortable reminder that The Spickner Spin frequently feels too flat to be completely successful.
New York International Fringe Festival