Paper elephants and donkeys; red, white, and blue banners; and two video screens -- one posted in either of the far corners of the space -- set the scene for George and Ira Gershwin's Of Thee I Sing, one of Broadway's first political satires. We are quickly reminded that successful musicals and presidential campaigns have similar components: valiant displays of showmanship, ample opportunity for pageantry, and of course a scandal stewing in the background. Of Thee I Sing has all those ingredients, but like so many election campaigns, falls short of realizing its potential.
When John P. Wintergreen, "the only candidate whose name stays fresh in your mouth" (Steven Flaa), is nominated for President, his party decides to center the campaign on an issue "that everyone cares about but that doesn't matter a damn." Wintergreen is advised to run for office on the platform of "love." To begin, his campaign managers set up a beauty contest, vowing that the winner will marry the President-to-be. Wintergreen throws a wrench into this plan when he falls in love with and marries his loyal campaign worker Mary Turner (Ann O'Kane). The rejection infuriates the winner of the beauty contest, Southern belle Diana Devereaux (Christie Mascoretto). When Wintergreen is elected, the jilted Diana threatens to sue for breach of promise, and Wintergreen's advisers urge him to resign. But he refuses, and plans are brewing to impeach him when wife Mary saves the day. Of Thee I Sing, which premiered in 1931, was a hit on Broadway at a time when theater was hitting economic bottom because of the Great Depression. Pulitzer prizes went to George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind for the book and to Ira Gershwin for the lyrics.
Jan McArt had the right idea to revive Of Thee I Sing during an election year. Some 70 years after it was written, it sheds considerable light on what's new and what's not in American politics. Without one bit of tinkering with the script, the triangle of Mary, Diana, and John more than hints at the Clinton-and-Lewinsky saga, confirming how little politics has changed. When the dark-haired vixen Diana Devereaux saunters in "just one last time" to claim the justice due her, who cannot think of Monica? How can senators chanting, "Impeach him! Impeach him!" not conjure up the image of President Clinton's flushed face during the days when the hearings heated up? Not to mention the general underhandedness that always accompanies any satire of politics. When Wintergreen, upon being chosen as a presidential candidate, declares eagerly to his supporters, "Nominated by the people and ready to do any dirty work it takes!" you can't help but smile knowingly and say to yourself, Yep, not much has changed. Periodically attention is directed to the video screens that project images from the '30s: hard-working men with their shirtsleeves rolled up, women in petticoats, couples being pulled around in rickshaws. This visual contrast creates a good part of the musical's impact . By the same token, some of its cultural baggage is outdated enough to offer an intriguing look back. The premise that Mary wins everyone's heart with her corn muffins, for example, is absurd for anyone familiar with the reign of Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Of Thee I Sing is a reaffirmation of the durability of the Gershwin brothers' genius. Their ability to yoke values and sentiment to innovative musical scores resonates as brilliantly as ever. What is difficult to overlook, though, is the mediocre acting and dancing, which after two hours plus are far from entertaining. If you don't have a personal connection to that era and hence a boatload of nostalgia to keep you afloat or if you're not related to one of the cast members, Of Thee I Sing is not likely to hold your attention for more than an hour. To start off, the Royal Palm Festival Dinner Theatre lacks two of the most basic elements of successful musical theater: a proper stage and live music. No matter how fit the fanny, there's just something wrong with watching musical theater from behind. Even though an attempt has been made to stage the show in the round, it's distracting not to have the focal point of a real stage. The platformlike performance space, surrounded on all four sides by the tables, is also quite small for anything more than pageantry. Showmanship is the cornerstone of vibrant musical theater, yet the performers in Of Thee I Sing literally have no room to kick up their heels.
If musical theater has anything unique to offer contemporary theatergoers, it should be exciting dance. An exhilarating tap sequence is still exhilarating. A steamy duet is still steamy. Yet only one routine in Of Thee I Sing stands out as eye-catching: two couples, dressed in red, white, and blue, doing a rhythmic tap sequence with rifles. Their high-stepping hitch-kicking is upbeat, and the synchronicity of the dancers with their rifles is lively. Aside from that, unfortunately, there's no more here than exaggerated promenades, ports de bras, and a few stock gestures (the clutching of one's hands to one's heart; the wide-eyed, cabaret-style "oops!" expression accompanied by a swing of the hip). Although the dancers are obviously trained, their work doesn't surpass the run-of-the-mill level one might expect on a cruise ship. Also, thanks in part to the recorded soundtrack, not one moment feels remotely spontaneous -- a serious letdown in a live performance.
One of the strong points of the production, and a crucial one, is the singing. The voices, especially those of the primary players (O'Kane, Flaa, and Mascoretto), are quite appealing. Tunes like "Who's the Lucky Girl to Be?" "Love Is Sweeping the Country," and "Of Thee I Sing" are engaging songs, and although the cast doesn't project anything sensational, they sing them capably and with enthusiasm. Mascoretto as Devereaux brings a little more character to her role. As the cunning belle turned victim, she displays a wider range of emotions than the rest of the cast, who for the most part come across as simply gleeful.
On a quirkier note, Don McArt (Jan's brother) has an idiosyncratic presence. As Vice President Throttlebottom, he slumps about, overlooked and trampled by the crowds, preserving the age-old image of the invisible VP. Oddly enough, McArt looks like a cross between Alfred E. Neuman and George Burns. When he's quiet he has the devious but dorky presence of the MAD magazine character, but on occasions when he holds a cigar and delivers a one-liner, you think, Did he just say "Good night, Gracie"? Albeit strange, it's a welcome and comic addition to the otherwise not-so-memorable show.
There is no energy between Mascoretto and Flaa as Devereaux and Wintergreen. Considering Devereaux is Wintergreen's archenemy, this is bad news. Whether she pouts, raves, pleads, or recoils, Wintergreen stands there, looking on as if he were off stage waiting for his cue. There is, on the other hand, amiable warmth between Flaa and O'Kane: nothing particularly romantic but the sort of solid friendship that probably inspired sayings like "Behind every successful man is a good woman." O'Kane is a believable girl next door, fresh-faced and wholesome. The steady character portrayals and singing make one wonder just how much the lack of stage space affects the overall quality of the performance.
By Of Thee I Sing's finale, one might ask, "Where's Isaac the bartender? I need a drink." The dinner-theater format at the Royal Palm is fading on the horizon and threatening to reemerge as cruise-ship entertainment. It has all the right components -- chicken in cream sauce, a battalion of yawning waiters, a herd of retirees, and a musical performance. But the Royal Palm Festival Dinner Theatre is an institution in its own right, having provided South Florida with 23 years of musical theater. The house is full. The people seem to be happy. For now it has its audience, but for the sake of keeping musical theater relevant and interesting to younger audiences, serious changes need to be made. This is entertainment at its lowest common denominator -- a few laughs, good friends, and good food. Like the smattering of cabarets that cater to older Cuban exiles on Calle Ocho, it serves its purpose and has its place on the continuum of entertainment. But who will fill those seats in another 23 years?
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