A Flawless Production of the Gershwins'
The San Francisco Symphony and Chorus with Broadway stars under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas recently presented a flawless concert version of two Gershwin brothers classic ‘30s musicals at Davies Hall as part of the Of Thee I Sing Summer Concerts. This semi-staged production had an all-star cast consisting of Mo Rocca, Stephen Bogardus, Lisa Vroman, Marin Mazzie, Jason Danieley, Lianne Marie Dobbs, Kevin Chamberlin and Charles Dean with 50 musicians and 50 chorus members presenting the classic Gershwin songs from both musicals. Music Theatre International (MTI) has condensed each of the musicals into a single hour. Most of the dialogue and those corny clichés that were popular in the '30s are gone. There are no big chorus line beauties or overtures to either of the musicals
Narrator Mo Rocca as Vice President Alexander Throttlebottom kept the plot line going with his zippy narration and updated remarks about such things as Governor Schwarzenegger's upcoming special election and being kept in “a bunker” after the election of President Wintergreen. With great fervor, Jason Danieley sang “Down with Everything” from Let ‘Em Eat Cake during which Michael Tilson Thomas was teased with the line “Down with Boris Tomashefsky!” (his gradnfather). The conductor got up from his podium with fast-flying fists in protest.
Tilson Thomas, who conducted the Orchestra of St Luke in the concert version on the 1987 recording with Larry Kert, Maureen McGovern and Jack Gilford, repeated the presentation in two acts with the first act being a the stripped down version of Of Thee I Sing and the darker political gem Let ‘Em Eat Cake in a second act, 'Reader’s Digest' version.
The legendary Of Thee I Sing was the first musical comedy to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, with the award going to director and book writer George S. Kaufman, associated book writer Morrie Ryskind and lyricist Ira Gershwin (composer George Gershwin was awarded the Pulitzer Prize posthumously to mark the centenary of his birth). The musical ran 441 performances and was the longest running book musical of the 1930s. William Gaxton and Victor Moore became Broadway legends as the president and vice president. Revivals were tried, but failed due to an outdated book. I saw the full-length, two-act semi-concert musical at the UCLA Freud Playhouse in November 1998 with Gregory Harrison as Wintergreen and Maureen McGovern playing his wife Mary Turner. Charlie Dell, a well known film character actor, played Throttlebottom and Jason Graae played the French Ambassador. The book was very dated but the music was glorious.
The Gershwins and Kaufman had hoped to repeat their success with Let 'Em Eat Cake, a sequel with the same cast. It opened at the Imperial Theatre on October 21, 1933, but received tepid reviews. Where the first was light and airy, this follow-up was just too dark and cynical. The idea that the United States would go to war with France over a woman was too ludicrous, plus the idea that two idiots would ascend to the presidency was a bit too scary for the theatregoers who were in mist of the Great Depression. It ran only 90 performances.
George and Ira Gershwin’s two political musicals contain some of the best writing that these two geniuses produced in the 1930s. The celebrated score for Of Thee I Sing is full of inimitable Gershwin touches and the lyrics have striking imagination and wit. There is a certain Gilbert and Sullivan quality in the Let ‘Em Eat Cake, but unfortunately George’s musical embellishments are largely missing. The first show contains some of the brothers’ greatest song such as “Love is Sweeping the Country,” “Of Thee I Sing,” and “Who Cares,” while the second contains the standard “Mine,” a powerful love song.
Michael Tilson Thomas assembled a superb cast of Broadway performers, including two Bay Area favorites in assigned roles. Stephen Bogardus as John P. Wintergreen made an earnest effort to play the role as a somewhat naïve presidential candidate. However, he really scored in the vocal department in “Of Thee I Sing” along with Lisa Vroman who made a splendid Mary Turner in the rousing duet. His voice had a powerful resonance in his rendition of “Mine” in the second act. Jason Danieley and Marin Mazzie were outstanding in both musicals. Jason's duet with Lianne Marie Dobbs in “Love Is Sweeping the Country” was dynamite.
Both Jason and Marin gave engagingly smooth performances in both musicals. Marin did a priceless imitation of the southern belle Diana Deveneaux and looked like a sex bomb with her Marilyn Monroe blond wig. She had the Jayne Mansfield look and movements as she sang “Jilted.” In the second act, she again reeked of sex as Trixie Flynn singing the wonderful “Naughty Lady” that was added to the score. Jason brought down the house with “Down with Everything” in the second act with his vibrant manner and voice. Both were marvelous in their comedy song “First Lady and First Gent” in the second act.
Kevin Chamberlin was a real hoot as the French Ambassador in the first act. He was straight out of a Monty Python sketch with his fractured French accent. His rendition of “The Illegitimate Daughter” was side-splitting. When he sang “The illegitimate daughter of the illegitimate son of the illegitimate nephew of Napoleon,” the audience couldn't help but break up. In the second act he took over the role of General Adam Snookfield, a lesser character with comedy relief straight out of Li'l Abner. Mo Rocca was outstanding as the narrator and Alexander Throttlebottom. He kept things moving fast with his clever asides to the audience. His voice is like a mature Jerry Lewis and his face like Harold Lloyd in horn rim glasses. His presence on the stage was very charismatic.
The cast was rounded out by Bay Area favorite Charles Dean who as John P. Tweedleedee in the second act. He had little to do but smile a lot as the president who succeeds Wintergreen.
The costumes were all authentic dresses and suits of the '30s. During the revolution all the males wore blue Levi's shirts (which were made here in San Francisco at one time) with blue Levi's caps that were found during the days of the Red Guard in China. The gowns were light, fluffy gossamer types that you would see in those ‘30s flicks. Even the chorus was decked out in ‘30s outfits. All were supplied by MTI, which was mentioned in one of the lyrics in a campy manner. There were great cartoon slides projected on the back of the stage with the large San Francisco Symphony Orchestra on both sides. The superb chorus was on two tiers at the rear and some of the chorus acts were supporting cast members like the Supreme Court Justices or ladies of fashion. They added to the excitement of seeing a superior Broadway show.
Music as glorious as this makes one wonder why such an undertaking hadn’t been done before. This was a great evening of classic Broadway entertainment that other concert orchestras should try. This is a show that provides a cross-curricular opportunity to mix government with theater; some of the ideas in these musical are prevalent in today’s world. Undoubtedly, the brothers were the best political musical composers of the ‘30s.
Of Thee I Sing and Let “Em Eat Cake played at Davies Symphony Hall on June 23 thru June 25th as part of the Summers Series of the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus.