★★★★½ Pulitzer Prize winning satire comes up smart and savvy.
Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
September 26, 2015
The Gershwins’ Of Thee I Sing was the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize way back in 1932 (the others, for factoid nerds were South Pacific (1950), Fiorello! (1960), How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1962), A Chorus Line (1976), Sunday in the Park with George (1985), Rent (1996) and 2010’s Next to Normal). Not only that, so successful was the sharply satirical, depression era political farce, it even spawned a sequel (the rather less original Let ‘Em Eat Cake). A mere 84 years on, Aussies finally got their chance to see what all the fuss was about, and thanks to Squabbalogic’s sharply observed, minimalist staging it wasn’t hard to see why Broadway in 1931 was abuzz.
Blake Erickson, Jay James-Moody, Rob Johnson, Nathan Farrow
By the time Of Thee I Sing opened, George and Ira Gershwin already had a string of hit shows under their belts and were widely considered the hottest song-writing team in the business. George had penned Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris (a snippet of which he quotes in his send up of the French Ambassador in the show). Of course, it helped that they had the rapier wit of George S. Kaufmann and Morrie Ryskind on board, the team that had already poked fun at US economic jingoism in Strike Up The Band a few years earlier – a show where America goes to war with the Swiss over cheese tariffs!
Of Thee I Sing stays closer to home but is no less barbed showing how the political backroom boys hoodwink the public (and their own Presidential candidate) in order to take and stay in power. Along the way they send up the political capital to be made from perceived foreign threat, immigration, chauvinism, manipulation of the historical record and the irrelevance and anonymity of the Vice President – sound familiar? The hare-brained plot hinges on a plan to hold a public beauty contest to choose a wife for Wintergreen (the dashing Republican candidate), perilously prescient of the reality TV shows of here and now. When he falls for Mary, a campaign secretary who bakes a corn muffin so delicious it’s love at first bite, jilted southern belle Diana Devereaux goes on the litigious warpath, eventually embroiling the French as she claims to be an illegitimate daughter of an illegitimate son of an illegitimate nephew of Napoleon – you get the picture?
David Berry, Courtney Glass and Company
All this makes for rich pickings and James Jay-Moody’s economical staging involving lots of doubling with minimal set and props pitches the whole thing just right. The humour is given room to breathe, the jokes stay true to period sensibilities and the whole thing lands as I’m sure the writers intended. But this is a co-production and equal credit is due to Brett Weymark and Sydney Philharmonia Choirs who provide the band, the chorus and quite a few of the many bit parts as well. Not only that, every single person on the stage has learned their part – pretty damn impressive for a ‘concert presentation’ that only gets two showings!
Weymark’s conducting is thoroughly idiomatic, allowing Gershwin’s jazz age score to shine and revelling in the orchestrations, which are a cut above the average for a Broadway show. His band responds splendidly and the chorus are exemplary in their commitment to texts that frequently veer off into tongue-twisting Gilbertian patter territory. And how nice to hear a musical unamplified! This is how these scores were meant to be done, and there are plenty of decibels and no lack of excitement. The soloists are miked, but just enough to make sure we catch every word, and whoever did the sound design deserves a Helpmann nomination.
The largely un-starry cast are never less than adequate and frequently spot on. David Berry and Courtney Glass are perfect as Wintergreen and Mary. The rangy Berry catches the matinee idol appeal and the coached gesturing of the charismatic Presidential candidate to a tee while singing with an engaging and appropriate smoothness. Glass doesn’t just have the notes for Mary – essentially a soubrette role – but she has perfect diction and acts the smart career girl or honest housewife with just the right degree of tongue in cheek.
David Berry and Courtney Glass
They are ably supported by Blake Erickson as a smarmy political PR man, Nathan Farrow who encompasses a windbag southern ‘aristocrat’ and the ludicrously moustachioed French Ambasador, Jamie Leigh Johnson who sings and acts both the dumped Diana and a Presidential secretary, and the rather impressive Rob Johnson whose substantial, Protean talents are called for in playing pretty much everyone else. James Jay-Moody also puts in a star turn as the ineffectual, ignored Alexander Throttlebottom – the hapless Vice Presidential candidate whose name no one can ever seem to remember.
An afternoon of unmitigated pleasure then, and a reminder of a time when political satire could pack out a musical for a substantial Broadway run (in this case 441 performances). Despite a decent cast, next door, Opera Australia’s sledgehammer-to-crack-a-nut production of the contemporaneous Anything Goes relies on over amplification, lumbering stereotypes and a fearsome degree of mugging. Of Thee I Sing could (and should) show them a thing or two.