THEATRE REVIEW | ‘OF THEE I SING’
City Center’s Enocres! Presents Of Thee I Sing
By CHARLES ISHERWOOD
Published: May 13, 2006
A political party in a muddle, in frenzied search of a viable platform. A president nearly impeached over what is deemed an improper relationship with a woman. Momentous decisions on national affairs handed down by the Supreme Court. An international ruckus caused by those perfidious French.
No, you are not watching a blooper reel from the last 10 years of American politics, or, despite those gales of giddy laughter, a compilation of the best bits from “The Daily Show.” This merry cocktail was stirred way back in 1931, by George and Ira Gershwin in collaboration with George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. It’s a trenchant little musical satire called “Of Thee I Sing,” baby, and it’s one of the silliest and yet most sublime things on a New York stage right now.
But you’ll have to act quickly, folks, since this show, while rather livelier than a political convention, won’t last much longer. It is in town only through Monday, as the happy finale of this season’s Encores! series of concert musicals at City Center. With a terrific cast led by the estimable Victor Garber as a brain-dead but love-struck American president, a charmingly pert Jennifer Laura Thompson as his secretary turned first lady, and an absolutely priceless Jefferson Mays as the invisible man otherwise known as the vice president, this is the most polished and entertaining Encores! presentation in recent memory.
What’s that old saw about satire closing on Saturday night, Mr. Kaufman? “Of Thee I Sing” blew it a big raspberry back in 1931, when it became the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize and ran for 441 performances, then an impressive achievement. But, like many of the more flimsily constructed Gershwin shows of the 1920’s and 30’s, it has not been deemed a worthwhile candidate for frequent Broadway revival. The most recent was in 1952, when, I’d imagine, Kaufman’s gleeful cynicism about affairs of the heart and affairs national was fatally out of step with the country’s mood.
That is assuredly no longer the case. Indeed, the laughter that greets the show today is tinged with surprise at how eerily some of its jokes seem to take precise aim, from decades back, at current affairs. A chorus of reporters sings to the new president of the "17 vacations you have had since you’ve been here." A politician dismisses Abraham Lincoln’s pronouncement about not being able to fool all of the people all the time by remarking: "It’s different nowadays. People are bigger suckers."
Plus ça change, as the French say.
Which brings us, mes amis, to the plot of this daffy soufflé. The country’s in a mood as the presidential election nears. The bigwigs of an unnamed party (the joke being, uh, there ain’t much difference between ’em) are gathered in a smoky back room. They’ve just elected a handsome empty vessel to pursue their presidential aspirations, but are still in desperate search of what would today be called a message. What does John P. Wintergreen (Mr. Garber) stand for?
Enter a chambermaid, who confesses that, after money, the only thing she really cares about is love. Eureka! A national contest is announced to find a mate for the unmarried Wintergreen. Yep, it’s "The Bachelor" with a booby prize, the keys to the White House.
The winner is a steel magnolia with the steamy name of Diana Devereaux (Jenny Powers), but — uh-oh! — the president has gone off message. He’s fallen for his secretary, Mary Turner (Ms. Thompson), primarily because she knows how to bake corn muffins, and he refuses to go through with the deal. When the jilted Diana is discovered to be of French extraction, the ambassador from France rushes to defend her, insisting the newly elected president honor his marital treaty.
These absurd doings may not strike you as natural Pulitzer Prize material, but the biting humor must have struck the judges as a nice tonic for the restless national mood — as indeed it is today, when politics and showbiz are ever more noxiously intertwined. And the musical is borne aloft on the buoyancy of George Gershwin’s music and Ira Gershwin’s intricate, often hilarious lyrics. (Unfortunately, that prize went to everyone but George Gershwin.)
The complex musical structure of “Of Thee I Sing” sets it apart from many earlier Gershwin shows. There are only a handful of easily extracted tunes, the best-known being the swinging love song "Who Cares?" and the title song. Most of the show consists of long ensemble scenes inspired by Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. And most of it is indeed inspired, particularly as performed by this flawless cast under the precise direction of John Rando, with sumptuous musical support by the Encores! orchestra and the conductor Paul Gemignani.
As the love-addled Wintergreen, Mr. Garber employs his still agile tenor with a commendable appreciation of period phrasing and style. Once a Broadway regular, Mr. Garber has been absent from the New York stage for a while, off in Hollywood helping Jennifer Garner chase bad guys or good guys or ghosts or whatever it is they chase on “Alias.” His relaxed, affectionate performance here at least reassures us that he has lost none of his stage charisma.
Ms. Thompson is a deft comedian whose bright, clear soprano is more than up to the demands of Gershwin’s more florid, faux-operatic passages. So, too, is the slightly sultrier voice of Ms. Powers, who gives a breakthrough performance here as the outraged Southern belle who sashays in and out of the proceedings, quivering with outrage in her slinky red satin and sniping, “Who cares about corn muffins?”
The minor roles are wonderfully filled, too. David Pittu snivels deliciously as the snooty French ambassador, and Lewis J. Stadlen, Michael Mulheren, Wayne Duvall, Jonathan Freeman and Erick Devine turn in sharp comic turns as various senators and string-pulling politicos. The chorus, given a larger role than usual in an Encores! show, is well drilled. Randy Skinner’s Fred-and-Gingery choreography, also expertly performed, provides some extra verve.
Mr. Mays, as the hapless vice president, Alexander Throttlebottom, seems to fill the City Center auditorium with laughing gas every time he steps onstage. He is best known for his hypnotic, Tony Award-winning performance in “I Am My Own Wife.” Here he displays an unexpected gift for comic characterization, mixing the dithering cluelessness of an Edward Everett Horton with a tinge of pathos worthy of — dare I say it? — Charlie Chaplin.
His character is essentially a running joke about the pointlessness of the vice-presidential role; nobody can remember who Throttlebottom is, and even he gets his name wrong now and then. But Mr. Mays plays him with such sweet earnestness that the gag seems fresh and funny no matter how often it’s repeated.
Charming as the evening is, you may leave with a tinge of sadness. It’s been a largely disappointing season for new Broadway musicals, proving the trite truism that they don’t make ’em like that anymore. And even as this jubilant production reminds us of what has been lost in the craft of the musical, it serves as a sigh-inducing argument for the enduring follies of American politics. In Washington, where the country’s political discourse is scripted, it seems they do still make ’em like that. Isn’t it a pity the Gershwins aren’t around to provide a diverting score for the midterm elections?