Of Thee I Sing
The City Center Encores! revival of the 1931 Pultizer Prize-winning musical is something to sing about.
This show doesn't come a minute or a measure too soon, considering that during the end-of-season rush to open Tony-hopeful songathons, audiences and reviewers have had their collective intelligence insulted by the bottom-feeding likes of Lestat, Hot Feet, and Tarzan. Yet it would be misleading to maintain that the Gershwins and their collobarators, Morrie Ryskind and George S. Kaufman (who also directed the original production), had high-falutin' brain teasing on their minds when they put together Of Thee I Sing.
These showmen could certainly indulge in low humor when they wanted to, and these silly proceedings -- in which U.S. Presidential candidate John Wintergreen (Victor Garber) runs on the single-issue platform of love -- get so corny that there are moments when they're literally corny. (One of the running gags involves corn muffins.) How nonsensical do things get in Of Thee I Sing? Well, when Southern beauty queen Diana Devereaux (Jenny Powers) loses the President's hand to the less voluptuous Mary Turner (Jennifer Laura Thompson), the Devereaux woman supplies the only plot twist in the show by trying to turn her spurning into grounds for impeachment.
But this cornucopia also contains kernels of wit. Bowing on Broadway during Herbert Hoover's tenure and as the country was in a frightening economic slump, the escapist show was an opportunity for caustic Kaufman and wise-cracking Ryskind to mock politicians of the period -- and, by extension, politicians of any period. As the jokes about matters like a president taking 17 vacations accumulate, you can sense today's theatergoers waiting for the next quip that'll prove unfortunately true of the Bush era. They get what they crave. As the plot barrels along, the party nabobs who've tapped Wintergreen as their president and threw in Alexander Throttlebottom (Jefferson Mays) as the veep hopeful could easily pass for bumbling Democratic National Committee machers of the present era. One major difference between then and now? Throttlebottom is a powerless vice president.
Of course, witticisms also crop up repeatedly in Ira Gershwin's lyrics, as when he has the effrontery to rhyme "effront'ry" with "country." He jammed many other japes into the show's many patter songs, all of which make low bows to W.S. Gilbert, the 19th-century wordsmith whom lyricist Gershwin worshiped from a young age. The Gershwin boys also managed to slip a few hits into the songbag, although the satirical nature of this musical precluded anything out-and-out sentimental. So the audience has to settle for "Love is Sweeping the Country," "Who Cares?" and the martial title ditty. When music director Paul Gemignani lifts his baton for the overture and Gershwin's melodies begin to caress the air, the heart lifts as well.
As is the cast with almost every Encores! undertaking, this one fires on all cylinders in every department. John Rando, only weeks removed from helming The Wedding Singer, directs a good-looking, vocally crisp, timing-canny cast. Garber returns from Hollywood with all of his stage talents to play the affable Wintergreen, and Mays is wonderfully diffident as the throttled Throttlebottom. David Pittu makes merry as the French ambassador. Thompson is charming as presidential bride Mary, and Powers is very funny as the vanquished Devereaux.