Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
Of Thee I Sing
Also see Kevin's review of Frozen
Of Thee I Sing couldn't have come at a better time. It's decision time again, time to select who will be our nation's leaders. With a straightforward book and effortless score Of Thee I Sing, now playing at the Tamarac Theatre of Performing Arts, still attracts audiences as it did over 70 years ago.
Jerry Campbell has adapted The Gershwin-Kaufman-Ryskind collaboration to fit the present scope. To set it in the present mode is somewhat tricky, but Campbell puts us at ease, especially when throwing in some jabs at our home state by recognizing the voting incident in 2000.
Eligible bachelor John P. Wintergreen is running for President. To boost his campaign, his cabinet sets him up by organizing a beauty pageant. The winner gets to be the candidate's first lady, but with all love stories, a monkey wrench is thrown into the mix. When Wintergreen sets eyes on pageant director Mary Turner, he diverts from the contest and asks Ms. Turner to be his intended. This doesn't sit well with pageant winner Diana Devereaux, but Wintergreen is undaunted and marries Mary anyway. Devereaux pulls out certain stops to have Wintergreen and Mary's marriage annulled, even claiming to be a descendant of Napoleon and enlisting help from a French ambassador. The president's cabinet gets involved by trying Wintergreen for impeachment.
This production fires on all cylinders. Campbell is tactful in keeping the spirit of the classic story while keeping up with the Gershwin score, thanks in part to able musical direction by Robert Russell Sears. Campbell has also assembled a group of competent talent, whose vocals could use some improvement but whose heart is still there, which keeps this story from being completely outdated.
Daniel Steinlauf entertains as John Wintergreen. Steinlauf's stage presence is undeniable as he shows off Wintergreen's suaveness and apathy at the same time. Not that Wintergreen is clueless to his plight (torn between two lovers, feeling like a fool ...), but his tunnel vision is set. Steinlauf empathizes with Wintergreen and it shows in his performance.
As leading lady Mary Turner, Emily Brennan has a beautiful soprano. Brennan also has that female intuition as Turner pulls Wintergreen into her clutches by using nothing but her charm. Brennan turns it up a notch by providing us with excellent cooing as she oozes with young female sexiness.
Comic relief is in the guise of many players on this stage, but taking the lead is Andrea Gilbert as the vixen, Diana Devereaux. Gilbert is a first-rate soprano, but it's her comic timing that makes her stand out (tacky wig aside). Gilbert pulls out all the stops as a woman who has been dutifully wronged. She also makes us sympathize with Diana; it's not her fault that the contest went awry, but we are subdued by Gilbert's failures to get justice. Gilbert, also a top notch musician, gets to show off her talents in the beginning by playing an instrument.
Jack Livesey also provides some comic balance as Alexander Throttlebottom, the VP incumbent. His Mickey Rooney resemblance notwithstanding, Livesey portrays a man who just wants to be noticed. Livesey proves to be a good showman, even singing a little "Mr. Cellophane" from Chicago (is that even legal?).
The rest of the ensemble boasts proficient singers. Standouts include Susan Sellikoff, who doubles as a scheming campaign manager and embattled secretary of state; Sharyn Bingham as a sore pageant loser and the French Ambassador who takes up Diana Devereaux's cause; and Sara Klompus as a chief justice sporting Tweety Bird slippers.
Robert Russell Sears' musical direction is on point as he guides the chorus through the Gershwin score, but he fails when he tries to get into the act himself, doing a bad nightclub version of Gershwin's greatest hits, including "'S Wonderful." Sears ought to stay on the sidelines providing with good music, and leave the singing to the players on the boards.
Another drawback is some of the production values. Formerly called the White-Willis Theatre, Proprietor Dorothy Willis changed the company name to pay respect to the West Broward County suburb that has provided time and funding for the past four years. The company also boasts that the citizens of Tamarac helped restructure the theatre, but one thing is for certain: it would be nice if they had a curtain for scene changes. It would provide less distraction for scenes that are played away from the main stage instead of seeing things being moved in darkness and would curtail the noise factor.
Of Thee I Sing was the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize, and it's no secret why. The Gershwins wrote good patriotic music while Kaufman and Ryskind imbued politics into the story. By updating the story, Jerry Campbell keeps it all in prospective and isn't that what theatre is all about? Decide for yourself.
Of Thee I Sing continues through November 14th at the Tamarac Theatre of Performing Arts, 7143 W. Pine Island Road in the Tamarac West Shopping Plaza. For more information, please call (954) 726-7898.
TAMARAC THEATRE OF PERFORMING ARTS - Of Thee I Sing
Featuring: Emily Brennan, Daniel Steinlauf, Andrea Gilbert, and Jack Livesey
Ensemble: Susan Selikoff, Jerry Weinberg, Ari A. Blumenfeld, Howard
Musical Direction: Robert Russell Sears
Set Design: Jerry Campbell
Adapted & Directed by Jerry Campbell
-- Kevin Johnson