by Wayne Lee Gay
published Friday, November 4, 2016
Irving — Along with providing a chance to experience a rare live performance of one of the liveliest and most brilliantly crafted scores to ever grace the Broadway stage, the current semi-staged production of George Gershwin’s 1931 hit musical Of Thee I Sing at Lyric Stage in Irving offers a much-needed relief from the current depressing presidential campaign. The work was the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize in Drama.
Of Thee I Sing is, first of all, pure satire of American culture in all its wacky, dissolute glory, poking fun at politicians, beauty pageants, the Supreme Court, the press, and, most of all, we the people who put up with and enable it all. The humor, plot and characterizations fall in the same zone as Al Capp’s classic comic strip Li’l Abner: outwardly shallow and one-dimensional, often stingingly critical, but delivered with a consistent affection for the object of satire.
To wit: a clueless but handsome presidential candidate, John Wintergreen, runs on a platform of one word (“Love”) with a vice presidential running mate, Alexander Throttlebottom, whom no one but the audience notices or remembers. As a campaign gimmick, Wintergreen agrees to marry the winner of an Atlantic City beauty pageant, but backs down on his promise when he falls in love with a secretary who makes great corn muffins.
Predictably, the jilted winner of the beauty pageant sues the new president for breach of promise, and the government of France threatens war (since the pageant winner was “the illegitimate daughter of the illegitimate son of the illegitimate nephew of Napoleon”), resulting in impeachment proceedings and, after a not-too-surprising twist, a happy ending for everyone, including the beauty queen and the vice president.
With all due respect to Rodgers, Bernstein, and Sondheim, probably no other composer could have enlivened so thin and predictable a plot so beautifully as did Gershwin, stringing one hummable melody after another to the infectious lyrics of his brother and constant collaborator, Ira Gershwin. Miraculous shifts of meter and tonality abound, and extended through-composed sequences anticipate the composer’s operatic masterpiece Porgy and Bess. Along with “Who Cares?,” an enduring item in the great American songbook, the show features an amazing anthem to corn muffins (“Some Girls Can Bake a Pie”); it’s worth observing, and not insignificant, that the campaign song “Wintergreen for President” leans into a minor key, subtly signaling a dark shadow in this outwardly comical romp. (Gershwin winkingly cribbed from Sousa, Sullivan, and his own An American in Paris at appropriate moments in the score.)
Given the cartoonish characterizations of the plot, this semi-staged production (officially billed as a concert, but with considerable action and choreography) provides the perfect setting, directed by Dick Monday against a glittering, star-filled backdrop. Drew Shafranek proves a handsomely clueless—and vocally impressive—Wintergreen with Kristen Lassiter as his confident love interest Mary Turner. Samantha McHenry is vivaciously energetic as the jilted beauty queen Diana Deveraux. Rubber-limbed Andy Baldwin mugs his way winningly as the unforgettably forgettable Vice President Throttlebottom, and Brian Hathaway bounds and bounces as the French Ambassador.
The vocal delivery of this quintessential jazz-age score is uniformly excellent throughout, and conductor Jay Dias demonstrates total command of the pacing and subtleties of Gershwin’s inspired score. As expected at productions of Lyric Stage, the completely acoustic, full orchestral accompaniment (34 pieces) immensely enhances the experience.
One can’t help pondering that if audiences in 1931, one of the darkest years in America’s history, could laugh at themselves and enjoy the music of one of our greatest tune-smiths, Americans in 2016 can too.