— The parallels between the presidential election in George Gershwin’s 1931 musical Of Thee I Sing and the current national nightmare are astonishing. But the biggest similarity is, sadly, that the American electorate isn’t very bright. So that’s good news if you think our dumbing down is relatively new. Right?
Lyric Stage in Irving, which specializes in revivals of classic musicals presented with a full orchestra and original orchestrations, reminds us of this with its concert staging of the work with lyrics by Ira Gershwin, book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, and orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennet, William Daley and George Gershwin. In 1932 it became the first musical to win Pulitzer Prize for Drama. That award has gone to only eight musicals since, including two politics-themed works, Bock and Harnick’s Fiorello! (1960) and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s mammoth hit Hamilton (2016).
In Of Thee I Sing, John P. Wintergreen (Drew Shafranek) is a dim but handsome, and unmarried, presidential candidate running on the campaign them of “love.” The team’s “brilliant” strategy is to hold contest to find him a wife before the election. But he shuns winner Diana Deveraux (Samantha McHenry) when he falls for secretary Mary Turner (Kristen Lassiter) and her corn muffins. The spurned woman sues because she won’t be First Lady.
This was written a good six decades before the reality show The Bachelor would keep ladies hopes alive by giving them a rose each week. Funny considering the current race has an actual reality show star as a contender. There are also jokes about the Supreme Court, a big current talking point; whispers of impeachment; and a lyric about another candidate who “loves the Irish and the Jews,” as if to overcompensate for what he might have already said about those groups. Ahem.
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This is satire, of course, and not particularly deep. It doesn’t have to be when reality is so close, and you’ve got that glorious music by one of the great 20th century American composers, George Gershwin, who wouldn’t back off from controversial social commentary, notably with his masterpiece Porgy and Bess.
Lyric’s production is darn funny, thanks to an interesting pick for director: Dick Monday, a well-known local clown who has performed with Big Apple Circus and many others. He and his clowning wife, Tiffany Riley, were recently all over the news in defense of their art form in the midst of the creepy clown scare. It helps that the musical is filled with rim-shot punchlines, such as joke about the Virgin Islands.
Andy Baldwin, playing the virtually invisible Vice President Alexander Throttlebottom, and Brian Hathaway as the French ambassador, are two actors who don’t need much physical comedy coaching, but Monday brings out even more fine-tuned work from them than we normally see. Baldwin, with is shoulders hunched, eyes bugged and a penchant for parroting others, takes the physical comedy to another level. There’s a lot of clowning gags in this piece, such as Throttlebottom always just missing liquor being passed around, that speak to Baldwin’s and Monday’s skill.
Monday event gets subtle charisma out of Shafranek, who fits into a stiff, stand-and-model role. His voice is gorgeous, as is Lassiter’s. The only actor who goes too far over the top is McHenry—but she has to pull off two cartoony accents: Southern American and French.
As usual, music director/conductor Jay Dias gets excellent balance and energy from the 34-piece orchestra, which sounds marvelous on these tuneful songs, from the title number to Some Girls Can Bake a Pie to Who Cares?
Of Thee I Sing is wicked-smart programming for the week before the election. You deserve a laugh or 800. Otherwise, we’ll run out of tears crying.