BWW Review: Bryce Pinkham and Denee Benton Mix Love and Politics in MasterVoices' OF THEE I SING
Back in 1931, when the firm of Kaufman, Ryskind, Gershwin & Gershwin had the novel idea to infuse that stodgy old music/theatre entertainment, the Broadway operetta, with the jauntiness of showtune and a chaotic mixture of comedic highbrow and lowbrow to tell the tale of an unqualified, but charismatic American politician who rides a wave of popular support for his questionable platform to the United States presidency, musical comedies typically employed a bit more on-stage and front-of-stage talent than audiences are accustomed to seeing nowadays.
When their resulting Pulitzer-winning masterpiece of mirth, OF THEE I SING, opened on Boxing Day of that year, the customers heard those George Gershwin melodies, orchestrated by Robert Russell Bennett, William Daly and the composer himself, sung by a 68-member cast and played by an orchestra that approached Philharmonic size.
So when Artistic Director Ted Sperling took the podium at Carnegie Hall to conduct the MasterVoices orchestra and chorus in their rousing concert performance of that revolutionary musical, the 21st Century ears attending heard something akin to what delighted Music Box Theatre audiences nearly 86 years ago.
The book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, which, as explained by the concert's narrating host, Mo Rocca, was written in two weeks, concerns presidential candidate John P. Wintergreen, who hasn't got much going for him except a name that sounds presidential and a catchy, though politically incorrect, campaign song. ("He's the man the people choose / Loves the Irish and the Jews.")
When the party decides they need an issue that the country can get excited about, but that really doesn't matter at all, they concoct a plan to have their bachelor candidate fall in love with the winner of an Atlantic City beauty pageant. The Louisiana miss with a shapely figure and an annoying drawl, Diana Devereaux, is declared the winner, but before the knot has been tied our hero has fallen in love at 2nd or 3rd sight with pert and efficient secretary Mary Turner. The reason? She can make the best corn muffins he ever tasted.
Love is sweeping the country, as Ira Gershwin wrote in one of the show's hit tunes which declares that "passion'll soon be national", and Wintergreen is elected. Diana demands justice, but when The Supreme Court decides that corn muffins are more important than justice, she employs the help of an irate French ambassador to flame a national scandal. See, it seems Miss Devereaux is the illegitimate daughter of an illegitimate son of an illegitimate nephew of Napoleon.
A terrific cast of Broadway favorites was employed to play the principle roles, led by Bryce Pinkham, an actor who often conveys the kind of adorably noble nerdiness that made his Wintergreen such an appealing candidate. As his true love Mary, Denee Benton sparkled with carefree giddiness and a gorgeous soprano.
A great trio of character actors appeared as political cronies - Chuck Cooper, Brad Oscar and Fred Applegate - and Kevin Chamberlin was sweetly humorous as the perpetually ignored Vice President Alexander Throttlebottom. Rhett Guter and Anna Landy were an exuberant pair of featured vocalists.
Scripted by Joe Keenan, Rocca updated the audience on the plot between musical moments, and also chimed in with amusing historic tidbits, like how the Pulitzer committee, having never before awarded the prize for drama to a musical, gave the honor to the bookwriters and the lyricist, but not to composer George Gershwin.
Or the legendary tale of how Kaufman came to check on the show in the middle of its run and, appalled at how leading man William Gaxton was hamming it up, sent a telegram to his dressing room that read, "I'm watching your performance from the back of the house. Wish you were here."