Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Of Thee I Sing:
A New Era Filled With Promise
Begins at Paper Mill

Also see Bob's review of Of Mice and Men

(l-r) Adam Grupper, Richard Poe, Garrett Long, Ron Bohmer, JoAnn M. Hunter, Sean Palmer and Hal Blankenship
The 2004-2005 Paper Mill season is off to an ambitious start with a revival of the rarely performed Of Thee I Sing, the first musical ever to win the Pulitzer Prize. With a score by George and Ira Gershwin and satiric book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, this classic light operetta is a must-see for lovers of the American musical.

In order to boost his chances for victory, presidential candidate John P. Wintergreen agrees to a beauty contest whose winner will become his wife. He falls in love with his aide, Mary Turner. Upon his election, he spurns contest winner Diana Devereaux and marries Mary. However, it develops that Southern belle Diana is actually a descendant of Napoleon, and U.S.-French relations are threatened. This leads to a move to impeach Wintergreen and make non-entity veep Alexander Throttlebottom president.

Several scenes are written without any songs. Several others are played in operetta style and consist virtually in their entirety of a series of songs which play like self contained mini-musicals. There are more melodies to be discerned in these scenes than there are listed song titles. This device reaches its apogee in the totally delightful and fully integrated big second act set piece when Wintergreen is brought before the Senate on impeachment charges. There are at least five delightful Gershwin melodies (and sets of lyrics) introduced in this scene alone. It would be negligent not to mention that there are three gorgeous George and Ira Gershwin standards ("Love Is Sweeping The Country," "Who Cares?" and "Of Thee I Sing") in the show. However, the greatest joy probably lies in hearing the far lesser known witty songs which comprise the impeachment and other scenes. I only fear that as these witty melodies and patter songs pour out one after another in rapid profusion that ears unfamiliar with them will fail to recognize the bounteous musical feast at hand. I note this because I doubt if I would have been able to do so without the benefit of having listened to the score beforehand.

The arrangements are based on the originals (largely by Robert Russell Bennett), which were rediscovered in 1984. However, whoever was responsible for paring them down seems to have updated and simplified them with the result that they are far blander and less witty than the originals as conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas in a concert performance in 1987. Hopefully, the out of print recording of this performance will be re-released. Working with the orchestrations at hand, music director Tom Helm conducts briskly and maintains a good balance between singers and orchestra.

There is a dichotomy in evaluating the book by Kaufman and Ryskind. On one hand, it is striking that the foibles of American politics satirized 73 years ago remain today. A political party which is unpopular distracts the voters from relevant issues with feel good slogans and rhetoric. It is hard to dismiss the underlying basis for the satire in the contest to choose a wife for Presidential candidate Wintergreen (and the adoption of the slogan "Love Is Sweeping The Country") four years after Al and Tipper Gore's passionate kiss at the Democratic convention. The arbitrary nature of Supreme Court decisions is satirized repeatedly. In one instance, they insist on ruling on the sex of the President's newly born baby. Early on, we are told that it is both of our major parties being satirized (it is Republican in some states and Democrat in others).

On the other hand, the satire is gentle and the story itself often comes across as silly and trivial, making several of the extended book scenes enervating.

The scenic design by Walt Spangler is exquisite. The art deco style panels and walls employed are flexible and eye catching. Three artfully curved and decorated (and re-decorated) wall panels serve beautifully for two hotel rooms and the President's White House office. The ingenious, visually fascinating setting for the Senate impeachment scene is a joy to behold. James Schuette's seemingly unending parade of costumes provide much eye candy and are always suitable and playable.

Ron Bohmer as Wintergreen and Garrett Long as Mary Turner both perform and sing ably. Wally Dunn is an amusing Throttlebottom throughout, and then strongly delivers in the impeachment scene during which he delightfully sings "The Senator From Minnesota." Sarah Knowlton sings strongly, gives a solid comic performance and is appropriately sexy as Diana Devereaux.

The top scene stealers are Sean Palmer and JoAnn M. Hunter as presidential aides. They are smooth and solid dancer-singers who are spotlighted to great advantage on multiple occasions.

The featured politicos are well performed by Adam Grupper (who puts a little Groucho Marx into his performance), Nick Corley, Richard Poe, Hal Blankenship and Herndon Lackey. Fred Berman is a crowd pleaser as the hyper French Ambassador.

Director Tina Landau has gone all out to provide a festive good time. Upon entering Paper Mill, you will observe that the entire auditorium has been decorated, with red, white and blue bunting bedecking the walls and balustrades throughout the auditorium. The cast energetically performs in the aisles of both the orchestra and loge, as the show opens with a political rally for newly nominated Presidential candidate John P. Wintergreen ("Wintergreen for President"). Landau has retained the entire original score (there are no interpolations from other shows) and the original book appears to be essentially intact.

The large and solid cast is well employed by Landau with the full 27 member ensemble often filling the stage. However, none of the leads step up to provide the kind of star power performance which might compensate for the languor in the book.

Choreographer Tom Pizzi's dances are smooth and appealing, especially the Atlantic City beauty contest number ("Who Is The Lucky Girl To Be"). Overall, his choreography could use a little more pizzazz and invention.

All in all, Of Thee I Sing gets the first Michael Gennaro produced season at Paper Mill off to a strong and interesting start. This is the moment for all of us who have urged Paper Mill to become more daring, interesting and eclectic in its presentations.

Of Thee I Sing continues performances through October 17, 2004 (Eves.: Tuesday - Sunday; Mats: Thursday, Saturday, Sunday) at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343

Music and Lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin; Book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind; directed by Tina Landau

Cast (in order of appearance)

Louis Lippman: Adam Grupper
Francis X. Gilhooley: Nick Corley
Maid: Nina Ragaz
Matthew Arnold Fulton: Richard Poe
Senator Robert E. Lyons: Hal Blankenship
Senator Carver Crockett Jones: Herndon Lackey
Alexander Throttlebottom: Wally Dunn
John P. Wintergreen: Ron Bohmer
Mary Turner: Garrett Long
Sam Jenkins: Sean Palmer
Emily Benson: Joann M. Hunter
Diana Devereaux: Sarah Knowlton
The Chief Justice: Dale Radunz
The Supreme Court Justices: Garrett Miller, Greg Roderick, Kevin Burrows, Jeremy Davis
The Scrubwoman: Lauren Marshall
The French Ambassador: Fred Berman
Senate Clerk: Matthew Labanca
Guide: Fred Berman

Additional Roles: Laurena Barros, Fred Berman, Leanne Bowman, Jeremy Davis, Kellie Drinkhahn, Stacey Harris, Joshua Phillip Huff, Matthew Labanca, Lauren Marshall, Garrett Miller, Dale Radunz, Nina Ragaz, Greg Roderick, David Sattler, Lindsay Marie Thomas, Ben West, Jessica Wright

Swings: Don Daniels & Laurie-Beth Mraz

Songs: Act I —Wintergreen For President; Who Is The Lucky Girl To Be?; The Dimple On My Knee; Because, Because; Never Was There a Girl So Fair; Some Girls Can Bake a Pie; Love is Sweeping The Country; Of Thee I Sing; (Reprises: Wintergreen For President; Love is Sweeping The Country); The Supreme Court; A Kiss For Cinderella; I Was The Most Beautiful Blossom; (Reprise: Of Thee I Sing). Act II —Hello, Good Morning; Who Cares?; The Illegitimate Daughter; (Reprises: Because, Because; Who Cares?); The Senator From Minnesota; The Senate; Jilted; I'm About To Be a Mother; Prosperity Is Just Around The Corner; Trumpeter Blow Your Horn; Finale.

Photo: Gerry Goodstein

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- Bob Rendell

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