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Of Thee I Sing

Will Pomerantz's enjoyable production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical satire emphasizes the script's comedy.

John Bolton and Amy Justman
in Of Thee I Sing
(© Stephanie Berger)
For a minute, you may wonder why Francis X. Gilhooley (Doug Shapiro), the political adviser spotted in the opening minutes of Will Pomerantz's highly enjoyable production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Of Thee I Sing at Bard SummerScape, seems to be a carbon copy of Groucho Marx. Then the light bulb goes off. This delicious political satire (which features a pleasant if often forgettable score by George and Ira Gershwin) was written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, who penned many of the zany siblings' best-known scripts.

Indeed, if you have never seen a complete version of the show, you may be surprised how much of the book is like a Marx Brothers movie, made up of extended sketches, hoary puns, and throwaway sight gags, all of which have been emphasized by Pomerantz to the nth degree. Sometimes he goes too far, throwing in an extra bit of foolishness, and he slightly overplays the show's long-running bit in which no one ever recognizes Vice President Alexander Throttlebottom (a nicely nebbishy Andy Gale). But you will laugh repeatedly.

In part, that's because as silly as the show can be, it's also remarkably smart -- a deft political satire that's ideal election-year fare. The plot hinges on the election and eventual presidency of the seemingly bland John P. Wintergreen (John Bolton), whose last-minute decision to ditch snarky Southern beauty contestant Diana Deveraux (a miscast Amanda Flynn), the woman he's been instructed to marry, for the love of his corn muffin-baking secretary Mary Turner (Amy Justman) has unexpected consequences. Not only do the American people begin to turn on him, but the French ambassador (an amusing Marcus DeLoach) threatens to sever diplomatic ties after it's revealed Diana is distantly (and illegitimately) related to Napoleon. Meanwhile, as we wait for the happy ending, Kaufman and Riskind happily skewer greed-hungry, dim-witted senators, power-hungry Supreme Court justices (who seem to believe they will determine the gender of Wintergreen's baby), and even the American electorate.

Only some of the humor, though, is echoed in the Gershwin score, which is most notable for three numbers: "Who Cares?" "Love Is Sweeping the Country," and the infectious title tune. It is played by an orchestra of 11 under the inspired direction of James Bagwell and sung unamplified by a cast of 21 (causing more than a few lyrics to get lost). Broadway veterans Bolton and Justman make an extremely appealing lead couple, displaying fine comic timing along with their song-and-dance expertise, and Gretchen Bieber and Chad Harlow make a strong impression as their assistants (and in leading the ensemble).

As was true of SummerScape's recent Uncle Vanya, this production is far from average summer fare, with a great deal of care and expense going into Louisa Thompson's inventive, wood-heavy set and Carol Bailey's colorful costumes. Pomerantz's snappy, period-appropriate choreography and thoughtful directorial touches (including a most unusual opening and ending tableaux) are also above the call of duty. While the show isn't perfect, it's definitely something to sing about.


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