Signature Theatre mounts a satirical musical fit for the political season.
The first production of Signature Theatre's 2015-16 season is a revival of a musical that initially appeared there in 1998. The Fix, with book by John Dempsey and music by Dana P. Rowe, is a zany "politics-from-the-inside" show that mingles musical styles and exaggerated characters to create a wickedly black comedy about lurid scandals lurking on the fringes of American politics. It is an altered Fix, though, with new music and changes in the script.
The story begins when a favorite political candidate, Senator Reed Chandler (Bobby Smith) dies in his lover's bed. Unwilling to give up on becoming important, Reed's widow, Violet (Christine Sherrill), determines to groom her untalented son, Cal (Mark Evans), to take his father's place. With the help of her ruthless brother-in-law, Grahame Chandler (Lawrence Redmond), Violet, a character with similar political motives and the motherly moxie of Mrs. Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate, creates Cal into the perfect political hopeful, first for City Council, then for Governor.
Along the way, Grahame agrees to help Violet if she'll secure him a judgeship. They send Cal into the Army, then bring him back and marry him off to a suitable-looking wife, Deborah Pullman (Jessica Lauren Ball). They change his casual look for a suit and tie. They also deal with a mob boss, Anthony Gliardi (a deliciously threatening Dan Manning).
Cal is quickly turned into a slick, phony bureaucrat who reads everything from a teleprompter and follows his written stage directions and hand gestures to the letter. On the surface, he seems to be an ideal leader with a perfect life but Cal has a weakness for cocaine. When he meets a young singer, Tina McCoy (Rachel Zampelli), she seduces him and makes him believe, for a moment, that he has found something real (while making his drug habit far worse).
Though the musical's story depicts the downward spiral of Cal's career, its buoyant score and sassy lyrics keep the show full of energy and lighthearted entertainment. Rowe's music is primarily rock, although there are bright flashes of jazz and even the sounds of vaudeville, as in "Two Guys at Harvard." Dempsey's lyrics are gleefully vicious and biting and never dull.
Sherrill is brilliant as the hard-as-nails Violet, a political maneuverer who is sure she can make it to the top through her son's good looks and her machinations. She lets her guard down only once, when she sings the mournful "Spin" while taking off her mascara, wig and dress. Despite the removal of her physical armor, she doesn't allow herself to stay vulnerable for long.
Evans is equally fine as the manipulated son who, knowing he has no chance against Violet and Grahame, allows himself to be made into something he is not. Evans has a rich tenor voice and incredible range, and whether he is belting a rock song or crooning a ballad or singing near-falsetto, he is always spot on.
Smith is perfectly cast as Reed, who sticks around throughout the show to comment on events. From his first appearance in "Let the Games Begin," when he announces the primary obsessions of the Chandler family ("The ultimate fix and the backroom deal"), he's always there in his white suit and cream-colored tie to remind Cal that, "It's all about control."
Redmond plays Grahame as a vicious, unloving uncle. His strong singing voice is particularly on display in the song "Embrace Tomorrow." Tina is well played by Zampelli, as a woman who clearly loves Cal but is also conflicted, at one point leaving him because she feels she is not good for him.
Director Eric Schaeffer intelligently keeps the show fast-paced and spare. With the imaginative choreography of Matthew Gardiner, the movement onstage is clean and uncluttered. Musical director Jon Kalbfleisch and his seven-member ensemble create a crisp, lively sound. Misha Kachman's simple set consists of four white pillars, with areas between them for stage entrances and exits.
The Fix is not meant to be taken as a serious analysis of political life. Still, as the Chandlers shout their mantra – "economy, crime, taxes" – this clever cartoon may send a shiver or two of recognition of those larger-than-life characters stumping through America, determined to win at all costs.