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Of Thee I Sing: The Wild Party

In all my years of playgoing I don't think I've ever heard an audience break into a spontaneous sing along during a musical's playout, but that's exactly what happened after Encores!'s Friday night's performance of the George and Ira Gershwin, George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind classic, Of Thee I Sing. I don't mean a few people around me started singing and humming a bit while leaving the theatre. I mean that as Paul Gemignani, looking a bit like Paul Whiteman in his dashing white formal, led the 31 piece orchestra in one final chorus of the title tune after the cast had taken their bows and left the stage, you could hear the blending of soft voices throughout the auditorium happily crooning, "Of thee I sing, baby / Summer, autumn winter, spring, baby…" straight through to the end of the song. Now that's what I call a delighted audience.

Premiering in 1931, Of Thee I Sing is often given a bum rap, being sandwiched between the landmark Broadway productions of Show Boat (1927) and Porgy and Bess (1935), as being dated and too slight an entertainment for modern audiences. But there's a reason this groundbreaking and wholly original tuner was the first musical ever honored with the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In its day this political operetta, a sort of Gilbert and Sullivan piece for the jazz age, was completely different from the expected musical comedy fare and eventually proved far more influential than the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein epic musical drama or the George & Ira Gershwin/DuBose Heyward folk opera.

The team of Gershwin, Gershwin and Kaufman had tried once before to inject high political satire into musical comedy. When their 1927 anti-war farce, Strike Up The Band, proved too discomforting to make it past Philadelphia tryouts, it later arrived on Broadway in 1930 with a severely watered down book, revised by Ryskind. But the foursome struck undiluted gold the next year, choosing to spoof the safer topic of how completely gullible the American people can be at the hands of a good media spin. Of Thee I Sing was the longest running Broadway musical of the 1930's and introduced a decade of shows bent on lampooning politicos both at home and in the ever-troubling world overseas. As great as they were, Show Boat and Porgy and Bess were not directly followed by similarly-minded musical dramas and operas. Of Thee I Sing opened the gates for Pins and Needles, I'd Rather Be Right, Leave It To Me, Hooray For What? and a host of other shows that made going to a Broadway musical in the 1930's akin to attending a taping of Saturday Night Live.

Presidential candidate John P. Wintergreen (Victor Garber) 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 (Jenny Powers), 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 (Jennifer Laura Thompson). The reason? She can make the best corn muffins in America.

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 (David Pittu) to flame a national scandal. See, it seems Miss Devereaux is the illegitimate daughter of an illegitimate son of an illegitimate nephew of Napoleon.

The most seductive feature of an Encores! production is the opportunity to hear a show's original orchestrations, in this case penned by the composer, along with William Daley and the prolific master Robert Russell Bennett. It's a dizzying assortment of styles, opening with a minor key march and including soft-shoe, grand waltz, recitative, comic arias, blues and hot syncopation.

In an effort to more accurately replicate the sound of 1931, music director Gemignani has his musicians placed on a flat floor on stage instead of the risers Encores! has been using in recent years. (John Lee Beatty's set makes it seem like they're playing on the floor of the senate.) Since City Center was not built for music performances and has poor acoustics, amplification must be used, but the results are remarkably natural, with a perfect balance between the orchestra and singers. This is theatre music at its finest. 

Director John Rando keeps the proceedings at a Marx Brothers pace that matches the absurdity of the Kaufman/Ryskind book. The duo had in fact been writing for the four Marxs previously and after seeing several productions of the show, this was the first time I could see traces of Groucho, Harpo, Chico and even Zeppo in the presentation. The book has been trimmed by David Ives and though I missed some favorite lines here and there (especially the explanation of how the party is Republican in some states and Democrat in others) it's still swift and hilarious.

Victor Garber makes for a smooth talking and sweet singing president whose flash slowly crumbles when the flash bulbs stop popping. Jennifer Laura Thompson is his enchanting matrimonial backbone. And though their age difference may stretch May-December a little into early January (especially when Wintergreen describes himself as "young"), it's perfectly fine for a concert. Making his musical theatre debut in one of the genre's great comic roles, Jefferson Mays is an amiable and eloquent Alexander Throttlebottom, the continually ignored vice-president, in an interpretation that seems a bit of a combination of Neville Chamberlain and Mr. Peanut.

Jenny Powers is a grandly comical diva sexpot as the jilted beauty queen and David Pittu is an admirably snooty buffoon as the French ambassador. Lead dancers Jeffry Denman and Mara Davi supply elegance and vitality, leading the chorus in two of choreographer Randy Skinner's buoyant routines. Character actors Lewis J. Stadlen, Jonathan Freeman, Michael Mulheren, Wayne Duvall and Erick Devine are all great fun as the political power brokers behind the scenes.

Encores!'s latest production helps prove that Of Thee I Sing deserves a higher place in the standard American theatre repertory. Heck, every high school in the country should be doing this one. Maybe it'll help kids learn something about questioning the rhetoric and jingoism behind politics. And maybe they'll learn something about what makes a great musical comedy, as well.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Victor Garber and Jennifer Laura Thompson

Center: Jonathan Freeman, Erick Devine, Jenny Powers, Michael Mulheren, Wayne Duvall and Lewis J. Stadlen

Bottom: Michael Mulheren and Jefferson Mays

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From This Author Michael Dale