Regional Reviews: San Francisco
A Great Production of George and Ira Gershwin's
Very few companies ever revive this musical, which is unfortunate since it contains some of the best of George and Ira Gershwin's songs, including "Who Cares?," "Love Is Sweeping the Country" and the title song. The music moves the drama along, for example in the first act finale, which reminded me of Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado. The score is amazingly modern.
This marks the third time I have seen this classic musical, the first being in London in 1996 at the Barbican Center as one of their "Sunday Musicals" and then in UCLA's Reprise series in 1998. Both were concert versions. This is the first time I have seen a full length production.
The show is certainly apropos for this election year. The durable humor of George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind's book, the sparkling melodies of George Gershwin, and the clever lyrics of his quipster brother Ira make the good natured parody on the presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court far more relevant today than some of the bubbly but transient tuners of the 1930s.
Of Thee I Sing is about a Presidential campaign tainted by scandal. John P. Wintergreen (Noel Anthony), the "National Party" presidential candidate, is decidedly higher on magnetism than substance. Looking for a campaign platform to grab the people's imagination ("Something that everybody is interested in, and that doesn't matter a damn. Something the party can stand on."), the committee settles on a "love ticket." So, the next thing the committee must do is launch a national beauty contest to find Wintergreen a suitable first lady, and to make him the romantic idol of the nation. They pick not so demure Southern bell Diana Devereaux (Brittany Danielle) to be his first lady. However, our hero picks home spun Mary Turner, who can bake damn good corn muffins. Of course, all hell breaks loose since Diana happens to be the illegitimate relative of Napoleon. War with France is enviable.
Sometimes, the show becomes book-heavy and a little overstressed between songs in the second act, but the cast keeps the wide-ranging characterizations appealing with their digs about the government.
Director Greg MacKellan's staging certainly lights the candles in high style with a large cast of great singers and dancers. This musical is light on its feet and sharp in its wit. Noel Anthony, who plays the presidential candidate on the platform of love who is then denounced for remaining loyal to his wife, gives a splendid performance. He has fine vocal cords singing with the right tempo in his movements, "Who Cares," "Some Girls Can Bake a Pie" and "Of Thee I Sing." Ashley Jarrett, as the muffin-baking first lady, warbles the score's traces of a Gilbert and Sullivan homage with ease.
As Diana Devereaux, Brittany Danielle manages to conjure up a slinky, comic femme fatale on the major make, almost entirely through her voice. She strikes a good balance between camp and vamp. Her voice reminds me of Judy Holliday in Bells Are Ringing combined with Madeline Kahn in On the 20th Century.
Some extraordinary performances arise from the supporting cast, and foremost is David Fleishhacker (making his professional debut) with a definitive portrait of vice presidential candidate Alexander Throttlebottom, who's so ignored that he has to see the White House on a scheduled tour and even then isn't recognized. His thin voice and self-effacing looks are ideal for the candidate's polite but determined efforts to be recognized. Steward Kramar turns in a vital performance as the French ambassador in one my favorite moments ("She's the illegitimate daughter/of an illegitimate son/of an illegitimate nephew /of Napoleon").
Johnny Orenberg and Ashley Rae Little do some fancy footwork in "Love is Sweeping the Country" while the ensemble belts out this upbeat song. Michael Rhone as Senator Lyons from the deep south, Stephen Vaught as Senator Carver Jones from a western state, and Anthony Rollins-Mullens as the Chief Justice are excellent in their respective roles and have great vocal chops singing out the Gershwins' numbers. Stewart Kramar, DC Scarpelli and Peter Budinger are an entertainingly contrasted trio of bosses behind the scenes. Katherine Leyva, Kelly Britt, Lexi Hart, Katherine Leyva and Skye Violet Wilson all give winning performances in their respective roles.
Jayne Zaban's choreography works well, especially a couple of the big production numbers such as "Wintergreen for President" and "Love is Sweeping the Country." Set and costume design by Hector Zavala add to the enjoyment of the show. Michael Anthony Schuler gives able backup on the piano.
Of Thee I Sing runs through October 21st at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstreetmoon.org. Coming up next is Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane's Carmelina opening on October 31st and running through November 18th.