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Mr. President

Michael West, Whitney Allen,
and Eric Jordan Young in Mr. President
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
When you hear the opening number in the new and improved production of Mr. President at the Douglas Fairbanks Theater, you will instantly recognize the melody as Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." As soon as you hear the lyric, however, changed to "God Help America," you will also recognize the comic genius of parodist Gerard Alessandrini.

The man who has brought us Forbidden Broadway for lo these many years now offers Forbidden Politics in the form of a substantial rewrite of Berlin's 1962 flop show. Using a failed book musical as a vehicle for a contemporary political satire is an audacious idea. To a large degree, it works because Berlin's melodies are so timeless and Alessandrini's lyrics are so witty. As for the entirely rewritten book (also by Alessandrini), it's undoubtedly more entertaining than the original by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse.

Instead of John F. Kennedy's Camelot, we get George W. Bush's March of the Wooden-Brained Soldiers. The cast of characters--names slightly changed--is all-too-familiar. George Shrub (Clif Thorn) and his wife Flora Shrub (Amanda Naughton) win the White House in a battle with Al Bore (Michael West). Shrub's advisors include his mother, Barbara (Stuart Zagnit); his vice president, Dick Brainy (also played by Zagnit); and, from the military, Coalhouse Power (Eric Jordan Young). Ambitious down to her fingernails, ex-First Lady Chillary Fenton (Whitney Allen) has become a U.S. Senator with an eye toward moving back into the White House. Actually, we learn, she never left; like the Phantom of the Opera, she continues to lurk secretly within the shadows of the Oval Office.

Irving Berlin himself (Jono Mainelli) has a part in this show, but he's definitely a supporting character. He's there to narrate the proceedings and to remind the audience, by virtue of his presence, that this is really an old musical chassis with a new paint job. Fortunately, the paint is mighty colorful. One of the funniest moments comes when Shrub considers resigning his presidency. Dick Brainy, who has a history of heart trouble, clutches his chest and begins to sing the Berlin classic "Be Careful It's My Heart." Okay, the tune isn't from Mr. President, but it works; in fact, Alessandrini barely has to change the lyrics to get laughs. That, in itself, is pretty funny. One song from the original show, "Empty Pockets Filled With Love" has been cleverly tweaked to satirize the cynical politics of both Shrub and Bore. Throughout the show, the songs--in catchy arrangements by musical director Paul Katz--actually tend to move the "plot" (such as it is) forward.

If the show has a drawback, it's that Alessandrini is lampooning targets that have long been pun-cushions for every satirist in the country. When he pokes fun at Les Misérables in Forbidden Broadway, he's pretty much the only one doing so, and his gags have the advantage of being fresh. But when it comes to spoofing George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, et al., he has to take a number and get in line. It's not that having someone sing "Shakin' the Chads Away" to the tune of Berlin's "Shakin' the Blues Away" isn't clever; the problem is that we've already heard countless chad jokes. Worse, the overall tenor of the satire here is soft, perhaps in an attempt to be as mainstream as possible. Jay Leno tells more biting and, certainly, timelier jokes.

Still, the very conceit of covering this material in a rewrite of an old Irving Berlin show helps to give Mr. President a surprisingly buoyant appeal. It remains bubbly and effervescent thanks to the peppy, imaginative direction supplied by the team of John Znidarsic and Alessandrini. And as in Forbidden Broadway, with which this show runs in repertory, the costumes (by Alvin Colt) are a riot in themselves.

The cast helps give the show its comic sheen. In particular, West and Young stand out in a variety of roles. On top of playing Bore, West gives a hilarious spin on Shrub's brother, the governor of Florida, and he is nothing short of side-splitting as a dancing Richard Nixon. Young runs the gamut from a street person to Coalhouse Power, and he's impressive at every turn. Zagnit takes a broadly comic approach to his two roles, and it works. On the other hand, Whitney Allen's portrayal of Chillary Fenton is too extreme; more subtlety would have made for a funnier characterization. Amanda Naughton, like the First Lady she plays, doesn't really register, but Clif Thorn provides a stolid Shrub that takes root.

Mr. President is the first production of Forbidden Broadway's planned "Gongcores" series of comically updated flop musicals. If the show isn't the last word in political satire, it's refreshing that we have something like this in the theater at all.