If you like your political satire as toothless as a newborn baby, you're sure to love Monica! The Musical. Thankfully, despite being about as piercing as a bowl of marshmallow fluff, this New York Musical Theatre Festival show is nonetheless very, very funny.
The most amazing quality of Monica! is that authors Daniel J. Blau and Tracie Potochnik (book and lyrics) and Adam Blau (music) and director-choreographer Casey Hushion have turned out such a giddy piece of musical comedy with so few new ideas. So many of the show's most humorous moments feel lifted almost directly from the late-night talk shows in the late 1990s: Bill a sophomoric party animal? Check. Janet Reno a lesbian? Check. Hillary a lesbian? Check. George Stephanopoulos gay? Check.
In fairness, the writers do occasionally delve deeper than latent homosexuality in sending up the sexually obsessed president (Duke Lafoon), his wife (Megan Lawrence), and their bevy of bumbling friends and enemies. Treating Vernon Jordan (Rashad Naylor) as a stereotypical black sidekick is a stroke of comic inspiration; as the show quite rightly points out, who really knows what he did? Making special prosecutor Ken Starr (Charlie Pollock) into Clinton's own personal Inspector Javert is a fine tip of the hat to another epic theatrical chase, and his masquerading as Linda Tripp is inventive. Letting Clinton secretary Betty Currie be an urban woman with a Pennsylvania Avenue-sized attitude is a thrilling idea when you have the huge-voiced Frenchie Davis on hand to play her.
But depicting Hillary as a power-hungry, Machiavellian strategist doesn't elicit many laughs; at this point, wouldn't it be funnier to present her any other way? Pointing up the schoolgirl aspect of the crush Monica (Christine DiGiallonardo) has for Bill is similarly the most obvious choice imaginable. As for the score, songs about spin doctoring, Hillary's loathing of her husband, and the gullibility of the American people in the face of a megalithic media presence need to especially clever to really register; these - while solid - seldom are.
The cast proves instrumental in roughing up some of the material's smooth edges. Lafoon doesn't look much like Bill Clinton, but the Arkansas twang he affects is pitch-perfect, and if one can't easily imagine the real former president incorporating quite as many pelvic thrusts into his dance moves, here it always seems goofily right. Josh Walden is an hilariously flamboyant Stephanopoulos who seems to live his life in a gay dance club only he can see, and Kristie Dale Sanders's butch Reno is an understated comic highlight. Naylor, Davis, and Ray McLeod, who briefly appears as Bill's sexual mentor Tom Jones, have no end of fun with their portrayals.
But stuck with the most stereotypical characters, the usually reliable Lawrence and Pollock are never used to full effect here: She's never shrewd or calculating, only outwardly malicious; his demonic vocalizations and rapid eye movements aim for vapid melodrama but instead make him look as though he's push too hard for laughs. DiGiallonardo is more innately appealing than the real Monica, but she's otherwise a non-presence in the show's most important and most underwritten role.
The problem with the character is the same as the problem with the show: How much is there left to say that hasn't already been said? And how much more laughing is there to do about a president who's been out of office for nearly six years? One trusts implicitly in the actors' abilities to wring every possible laugh from this material, and while there's plenty for them to work from, it's too bad there's not something slightly less stale for them - and us - to chew on.
New York Musical Theatre Festival