Reviewed by G.L. Horton
Bravo to The Publick Theatre, for a rousing production of a seldom-seen American classic, the 1932 Gershwin musical "Of Thee I Sing"! Sixty five years may have taken the edge off a few of the satiric barbs in the Pulitzer-winning book by the brilliant George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, but George Gershwin's glorious score and Ira's needle-sharp lyrics shine as brightly as ever, the corn-fed --or corn muffin fed--equivalent of Britain's Gilbert and Sullivan. The show is a celebration of presidential politics as show biz, and of that quintessential American hero, the self-inventing con man who is an amoral hedonist but presents himself to the electorate as the embodiment of whatever virtue is in demand that season.
In "Of Thee I Sing", John P. Wintergreen (Frank Gayton) is selected as the presidential candidate after a deadlocked convention, and his handlers in the party-- the newspaper king Matthew Arnold Fulton (Dared Wright ), bosses Francis X Gilhooley (Frank Dixon) and Louis Lipman (Rick Peoples)-- are looking for an issue around which to build a campaign: "something everybody cares about but that doesn't matter a damn."' They ask the hotel chambermaid as a representative of the people what she cares about, and she answers "money". That's what the party cares about, too -- but it's the last subject they want brought up. People are bigger suckers than ever, but still, it's not a good idea to remind a nation in the midst of an economic crisis that Wintergreen belongs to the party that "sold Rhode Island". What party? Well, some times and some places they are Democrats, and sometimes they call themselves Republicans. But there's only one party really, the party owned by the Haves, and served by the Wannabes. As a youngish bachelor Wannabe, Wintergreen's best bet is to run for president on a platform of "love" because "love" is the chambermaid's second favorite thing-- a distant second, though; way after money.
Wintergreen has some reservations, but since he has no principles or ideas of his own anyway, he agrees to go along and to marry the winner of a beauty contest, to be held in each and every state. The contest finalists -- the few who haven't been disqualified for misconduct -- are gathered in Atlantic City to meet their prospective husband, and get their one shot at fame and fortune;
"If I have to go back to the cafeteria
with my lovely dimpled knee
...what will my poor future be?"
Naturally, the sight of so much focused sexiness and blatant female ambition terrifies Wintergreen -- especially the voluptuous and vampy charms of the southern Belle, Diana Deveroux (Kyrst Hogan), who seems from ogling of the judges most likely to be picked as the winner. Wintergreen panics and reneges, proposing instead to his loyal campaign worker, Mary Turner (Heidi Dalin). Mary's an ordinary girl, the girl next door who also happens to have a career--- and in the Publick's production she's a Hillary Clinton look-alike. But Mary's no virago: she also has culinary skills. She can make the best corn muffins John P. Wintergreen ever ate. In the Publick's production, the pair declare their love with an interpolated Gershwin love duet, "Mine". The party committee is scandalized -- a campaign bromise broken even before the election! But Wintergreen assures them that the down-home virtues of his Mary will be his greatest asset, along with her wonderful corn muffins. When the press tastes Mary's muffins, they are swept along:
"Great, great, it's written on the slateThe couple will campaign together in each state: elect Wintergreen and he'll marry his Mary and make her First Lady.
we must declare these muffins the best we ever ate.
There's none but Mary Turner can ever be his mate"
The campaign is wildly successful--- "Love Is Sweeping the Country,"
"Waves are hugging the shore
All the sexes from Maine to Texas
Have never seen such love before."
"Shining star and inspiration
Worthy of a mighty nation
Of thee I sing"
Elected by a landslide, Wintergreen ought to be able to look forward to an uneventful term. His idea of governance is appointing his cronies to office, cutting ribbons, and playing poker with various ambassadors. But Miss Diana Deveroux turns up at the combined inauguration-and-wedding threatening to sue Wintergreen for breech of promise .
"Of Thee I Sing" works as celebration in spite of skewering or sending up what passes for political process because Gershwin, like Sullivan, uses his music to manipulate deep emotions we all share and to reinforce our sense of community. We are fools and knaves together. We respond to the melody's emotional appeal -- and to the platform of love -- at the same time as we recognize that it is utterly illogical and irrelevant in the circumstances. Wintergreen hasn't an ounce of wisdom or character: but he's just like the rest of us, and may even represent the best of us:
"He's the man the people choose
Loves the Irish and the Jews."
OTIS is satire with a soft center. It demonstrates that capitalistic democracy is a terrible system --except, probably, for all the others. Wintergreen is a self-seeking schmuck totally in thrall to the corrupt interests that backed his rise. But at least he is temperamentally benign, and wants to make love, not war. In the sequel, "Let 'Em Eat Cake" the OTIS team darkened the satire, showing the nasty side of a know-nothing electorate, just as ready to embrace fascism as feelgood boosterism. But OTIS is moonshine and showgirls, and its surpassingly silly last act is amazingly timely at this political moment. Diana Deveraux returns in the entourage of the French Ambassador (Robert Saoud), who has taken up her cause, believing her to be
"The illegitimate daughter of the illegitimate son
of the illegitimate nephew of Napoleon".
Much of the second half's humor depends on the notion that a sitting president could be vulnerable to a sex scandal, and sued by a woman with a shady past who claims that he has done her wrong. Another thread concerns who better deserves to be First Lady: a steel magnolia who pours southern charm on every powerful man in sight, or a career woman who tries to function as the president's partner. Who would ever have guessed that such matters would turn out to be "issues" in 1996!
Vice President Alexander Throttlebottom (Bob Jolly), who has languished in total anonymity ever since he had the misfortune to be nominated for that ignominious office, is delighted to discover that he has a chance to become president once the senate begins impeachment proceedings. Throttlebottom runs off eagerly to preside over that trial -- just as soon as the White House Tour Guide tells him that's the Vice president's job. The senate wakes up from its afternoon nap long enough to vote "guilty", but just as Wintergreen is about to be ousted, Mary announces that she is pregnant, and the senators joyously parade the aisles to the oompa tune of "Posterity Is Just Around the Corner".
All the OTIS music is terrific, but like the extended "book" scenes the score calls for a range of skill that's hard to get together into one production. Most revivals cut and transpose, or only deliver an approximation of comic effects. Musical director Jonathan Goldberg and the Publick ensemble get it right. Eight part choruses with the vocal range of opera, plus dozens of speaking roles and second banana comic turns, Ziegfeld dance numbers, the entire Supreme Court and a large chunk of the Senate to represent on stage -- three hours worth of delights, paced by Spiro Veloudos for maximum impact and performed by the young company with intelligence and verve. Frank Gayton could never be elected President. Short funny guys who wear glasses finish last. But Gayton can sing and act, and his dancing's OK, so he gets my vote. Dared Wright is a formidable presence as well as a fine actor. His Fulton is a steamroller, the boss of bosses who energizes every scene. Bob Jolly is delicious as the hapless Throttlebottom, from the wrinkles in his socks to the tip of his straw boater. The females in the cast are allowed a more limited range of folly but they apply their talents to what's available-- vamps and airheads, ingenues and bitches and moms --- in a spirit of cheerful good sportswomanship.
The night I saw OTIS, the crowd was woefully sparse. That's just what's wrong with this great nation nowadays! Where's the patriotism, where's the sense of tradition, where's the support for a bunch of conservatory-trained kids hoofing their hearts out in one of the best shows ever written? My fellow Bostonians, the time has come to come to the aid of the Publick Party. Start with a picnic on the banks of the Charles, and then treat yourselves to a dose of medicinal disillusion, sugarcoated with song, festooned with fireworks, and guaranteed to leave you smiling.