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Ron Bohmer and Garrett Long in
Of Thee I Sing
(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)
"Political theater" means different things to different people -- and, in this particular election year, it seems to be all about bashing the George W. Bush administration. My personal idea of effective political theater is something much closer to Of Thee I Sing, the 1931 musical with a score by George and Ira Gershwin and a book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. The show is receiving an invigorating revival at the Paper Mill Playhouse, under Tina Landau's direction.

The first musical ever to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Of Thee I Sing is a solid, marvelously entertaining show; if it's obviously a product of pre-Oklahoma! Broadway, it's also a satire of the American political scene that hasn't lost much of its sharpness or incisiveness in the nearly 73 years since its premiere. The central character of the piece is John P. Wintergreen (Ron Bohmer), a presidential candidate who, with the help of the ominously named National Campaign Committee, runs on a platform of love. The plan is that a nationwide contest will find him an ideal First Lady, whom he'll marry after he is elected president. The scheme goes awry when Wintergreen falls in love with one of his campaign workers, Mary Turner (Garrett Long), who bakes killer corn muffins and helps him win over the country; this angers the contest's actual winner, Diana Deveraux (Sarah Knowlton), who vows revenge.

Wintergreen eventually faces impeachment because of the Deveraux scandal, the ambassador to France (a giddily over-the-top Fred Berman) makes a lot of nasty promises and throws around a lot of words without ever seeming vaguely threatening, and everything from the voting process to the Supreme Court is mercilessly skewered. But all of this is viewed from such a wry comic angle that the show never comes across as overly harsh in the way that so much political theater can be, especially today): Wintergreen and Mary argue over the White House budget as a normal married couple might quibble over personal finances; Vice-President Alexander Throttlebottom (Wally Dunn) is shunned, ignored, and forgotten by every power player in the show several times over; a Wintergreen rally takes place at Madison Square Garden during a wrestling match; and threats foreign and domestic are resolved in ridiculous ways.

Of Thee I Sing lacks the cohesion and thoughtfulness of integration evinced by shows written during and after the Rodgers and Hammerstein revolution have come to expect. Still, the musical has a shape that's visible through all the craziness. The score is exquisitely Gershwin, with its patriotic and romantic title song ("Of thee I sing, baby / Summer, autumn, winter, spring, baby! / Shining star and inspiration / Worthy of a mighty nation"); a hilarious musical scene at the Senate, wherein Throttlebottom only calls the senators whose names he can rhyme; buffoonish numbers for the Supreme Court; a song that mocks the French; and a series of numbers sung by and about the beauties who are up for the title of First Lady.

Landau keeps all of this together and moving swiftly, though a few of the lengthy dialogue scenes -- some of which the director has slightly trimmed -- could stand to be just a bit sharper. Music director Tom Helm does a fine job with the orchestra, and his tempi are generally lively and bright. Scenic designer Walt Spangler (aptly named!) has outfitted the production in mostly red, white, and blue; he provides an attractive series of gleaming set pieces for the White House and other environs in Washington and on the road. He has even hung banners and bunting around the theater itself, so the production has a distinctly "convention"-al feel before it even starts. Costume designer James Schuette also has run with the red-white-and-blue scheme, and Scott Zielinsksi's lighting is fine. The sound design at Paper Mill if often a problem, and that's the case with Duncan Robert Edwards's efforts here; the voices of the performers sometimes sound muffled and muddy. On a more positive note, mention must be made of a hilarious newsreel -- designed by Jan Hartley -- that depicts Wintergreen's final march to Washington.

Garrett Long and Ron Bohmer (center) and the cast of Of Thee I Sing
(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)
As Wintergreen, Bohmer sings well but doesn't cut a particularly presidential figure or seem naturally at home in the intricate comedy style on which the role is built; as Throttlebottom, Dunn is much more effective, vanishing into the background and re-emerging at moments opportune and otherwise. Garrett Long may not have the vibrant upper register that would make her an ideal Mary from a vocal standpoint, but she persuasively plays the character as a smart, modern, everyday woman. Adam Grupper, Nick Corley, Richard Poe, Hal Blankenship, and Herndon Lackey are all well cast as Wintergreen's advisors and special interests. Knowlton is perhaps never quite over the top enough as Deveraux, though she does score with a few comic bits -- particularly with Berman (who owns just about all of his scenes) in the second act. Sean Palmer and JoAnn M. Hunter play two of Wintergreen's aides; they seem to have been hired only for their dancing ability, and there's no question that they perform choreographer Joey Pizzi's steps very well.
Aside from the inclination toward operetta of some of the score's songs, Palmer and Hunter's characters are perhaps the most obvious throwback to 1930s musicals in this production. I'm not sure that I miss this device in today's musicals, but Landau was wise to retain it, as she was to show such fervent respect for the piece as a whole. It's common today for directors to automatically assume that anything written before a certain era -- usually, whenever the particular director began his or her career -- is unworthy of faithful presentation, yet Landau proves that the benefits of trusting the original creators can outweigh whatever might be gained through senseless revisions. In her hands, Of Thee I Sing is revealed to be wicked, scathing, and delightful. Whether you're going for Bush, Kerry, or someone else on November 2, cast your vote for this show.

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