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Of Thee I Sing
by Rob Kendt

©2006 Joan Marcus
Victor Garber & Jennifer Laura Thompson in Of Thee I Sing
How to describe the insistently silly 1931 musical Of Thee I Sing, which closes Encores! 13th season in a snazzy but hollow froth? Imagine the Marx Bros. classic Duck Soup minus the Marx Bros., except maybe Zeppo; throw in an incongruous but entirely welcome dash of Fred and Adele Astaire; reference Gilbert and Sullivan, then cite them again and again for good measure; and don't forget a few innocuous jabs at Washington pork and pop-culture frivolity, the ostensible subjects of this featherweight comedy.

The result is giddy and exasperating in roughly equal parts—helium plus tedium. Perhaps Depression-era Broadway audiences, sated by a diet of assorted Gaieties, Follies, Vanities and Scandals, found George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind's book cutting by comparison, or were swept away by the Gershwin brothers' bumptious score, which contains a few irresistible ditties—the title tune, "Love Is Sweeping the Country," and "Who Cares?" —and much else that is eminently resistible. But the Pulitzer Prize for drama? Over Mourning Becomes Electra? (Admittedly not O'Neill's best effort, and woefully lacking in bare-legged chorines, but still.) Apparently people didn't just love their escapist entertainments to distraction in those days; they also gave them their top awards.

Or perhaps this gummy "satire" really did break ground by portraying a fictional presidential candidate, Wintergreen (Victor Garber), as an empty suit, albeit a dapper one, and by depicting both his campaign and his eventual administration as an absurd opera buffa. But by now we're so used to fictive takes on the American presidency, including that of the White House's current occupant, that this barely registers as droll, let alone wicked.

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If we strain our eyes, we can see some prescience in the show's vision of politics as pandering show business. Seizing on the notion of finding a wife for their bachelor candidate, Wintergreen's
©2006 Joan Marcus
The cast of Of Thee I Sing
party hacks hold a national beauty pageant to name the lucky doll, and a gullible press and public eat it up. As a chorus of lustful newspapermen sings to the half-dressed finalists: "More important than a photograph of Parliament/Or a shipwreck on the sea/What'll raise the circulation/Of our paper through the nation/Is the dimple on your knee."

Oblivious to the charms of dimpled knees, least of all those of the contest's gold-digging winner, Diana Devereaux (Jenny Powers), Wintergreen instead falls for a campaign secretary, Mary Turner (Jennifer Laura Thompson), when he finds out she can bake corn muffins. Domesticity trumps sex appeal, and the chief justice (Eric Michael Gillett) marries this lovely pair in the same breath he inaugurates Wintergreen. But Devereaux doesn't take defeat lying down, enlisting in her cause the runty, frowning French ambassador (David Pittu, on a brief leave from playing Paul Wolfowitz, as well as a mincing Frenchman, in the Public's Stuff Happens). Mild repetition ensues.

By the time the press has dutifully transcribed a presidential love song, and an impeachment show trial has been thwarted by pregnancy, I began to think of Chicago, the Maurine Watkins play of 1926—a cynical bon-bon that scored similar, and far more vicious, points on the subject of public credulity. Now that would make a good musical.

John Rando's staging is an unerringly classy evening-dress affair, headlined pleasantly by Garber and Thompson. Jefferson Mays plays Throttlebottom, the comically anonymous vice president, as an effete Edwardian butler, while Powers plays the requisite femme fatale with appropriate spotlight-grabbing vigor. The suave dancing of Jeffrey Denman and Mara Davi is a highlight, and a gallery of backroom rogues—Lewis J. Stadlen, Wayne Duvall, Michael Hulheren, Jonathan Freeman, Erick Devine—is in fine, caricatured form. Paul Gemignani leads the band with his customary snap, and no one will leave the theater without a few Gershwin tunes stuck in their head. That doesn't seem like such a bad bargain for a night's entertainment. Still, when Wintergreen sings at one point, "Who could ask for anything more?," it's not just an earlier, better Gershwin standard that springs to mind.

Of Thee I Sing
Written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind
Music by George Gerswhin
Lyrics by Ira Gershwin
Encores! at City Center

Print This Story / Send the Story to a Friend / 5/14/2006 11:51:00 AM


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