Despite score, '1600' is no vote-getter

August 13, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

WASHINGTON -- When Leonard Bernstein and Alan Jay Lerner's "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue" tried out for Broadway at Washington's National Theatre 16 years ago, it went through more rewrites than a congressional bill. Then it flopped on Broadway anyway.

Now director Erik Haagensen has scuttled all of the rewrites in an attempt to return to the creators' original intent. And once again, the show is in our nation's capital, this time at the Kennedy Center in a production by the Indiana University Opera Theater.

Despite the stunning voices of Indiana's cast, the show remains far from a landslide victory. However, the production -- which plays its final performance in an all-too-brief run tonight -- is worth seeing primarily because it offers the rare opportunity to experience the sole collaboration between one of America's greatest composers and one of Broadway's most talented lyricists.

Without question, this is a score worth hearing. At various times inventive, solemn, humorous, soulful and stirring, the score is also notable for the effective means by which it advances the story -- no simple trick considering that this particular story covers the first century and a half of American history.

The score works best in songs that are sung as arguments. In "This Time," the White House servants, majestically portrayed by Angela M. Brown and Alfred Bailey, engage in an inspiring musical debate about the newly created country of Liberia. And in the clever "Duet for One," sung at the inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes, a single actress -- Kathryn Foss-Pittman -- assumes the dual roles of deliriously happy Lucy Hayes and jealous, spiteful Julia Grant.

But when the characters stop singing and start talking, the show's troubles begin. Not having seen the Broadway production, I can't say whether this version is an improvement, but it clearly fails to solve a few underlying problems.

The musical is built on two central metaphors. The White House is intended to be a metaphor for the country in general and race relations in particular; it's an "Upstairs Downstairs" view of the Executive Mansion, with a white actor and actress playing all of ++ the assorted presidents and first ladies, and a black actor and actress playing their servants. In addition, the musical is staged as a rehearsal in which the notion of a work-in-progress serves as a metaphor for an evolving democracy.

The latter is responsible for a host of didactic interruptions in which the actors playing the president (William Schumacher) and the male servant (Alfred Bailey) repeatedly step out of character to argue about which of them the play is really about, while the first lady occasionally butts in to insist it's really about housekeeping.

The presentation of the racial issue is also troublesome. Though the black characters are generally portrayed as more noble, their accomplishments are barely acknowledged. Instead, their primary function seems to be to complain about their treatment and remind the succession of white presidents that, no matter what else they achieve, they haven't made much headway in terms of race.

A few years ago, the Kennedy Center presented the Brooklyn Academy of Music's concert version of the Gershwins' political musicals, "Of Thee I Sing" and "Let 'Em Eat Cake." Perhaps that would be the best format for "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue." It would give audiences a chance to hear this valuable score, but save them from having to listen to the preachy dialogue that accompanies it. Particularly in an election year, "we the people" are exposed to more than enough of that already.

'1600 Pennsylvania Avenue'

When: Tonight at 7:30.

Where: Kennedy Center, Washington.

Tickets: $20.

% Call: (800) 444-1324.

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