'Of Thee I Sing' characters seem remarkably familiar

THEATER

September 25, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

In an election year in which the candidates' wives often seem to take precedence over the candidates, what could be more fitting than a revival of the 1931 Gershwin, Gershwin, Kaufman and Ryskind musical, "Of Thee I Sing"?

After all, this is a show in which the presidential election hinges on candidate John P. Wintergreen's selection of a spouse who's not only a career woman, but also bakes the best darned corn muffins in the land. Wintergreen bases his campaign on a seemingly incontestable platform of "love," and victory seems assured -- until the Other Woman shows up.

And, just in case these plot points don't seem sufficiently timely, consider the fact that Wintergreen's vice president is a bumbling nebbish who can't spell -- even his own name.

In other words, the script contains enough coincidences that, were it a new work, its authors would probably be accused of taking cheap shots.

So why does Arena Stage's production of this ground-breaking, Pulitzer Prize-winning musical satire seem so mild-mannered? It's not merely that the-times-they-have-a-changed, though that's part of it. And it's certainly not the acting or singing, which is top-notch. Lead actors Gary Beach and Lauren Mitchell deserve to be elected merely on the basis of their harmonious delivery of such Gershwin favorites as "Who Cares?" and the title song.

The chief difficulty seems to stem from director Douglas C. Wager's conception. With a few exceptions -- one of the most imaginative being the use of life-sized puppets to represent four of the Supreme Court justices -- Wager has chosen an old-fashioned, largely slapstick approach that makes this revival look dated instead of fresh. For example, as power-mongering newspaperman Matthew Arnold Fulton, Richard Bauer bears more than a passing resemblance to George S. Kaufman, and that gag is subtle compared to the repeated appearance of a character who looks and acts like Groucho Marx.

Admittedly, it's easy to find a reason for the latter; Kaufman and Ryskind were the authors of "The Cocoanuts" and "Animal Crackers," and Wager has directed both at Arena. Nonetheless, the current production truly comes to life only when it dares something new.

For instance, an added comic dimension is gained by casting Terry Burrell, a stunning black actress with terrific timing, as Diana Devereaux, the Other Woman. When Burrell sings "Jilted," she hilariously commingles French and Southern-belle accents, and she also manages to toss in a dose of the blues. It's a far more effective choice than making Wintergreen look like a clone of Ronald Reagan.

"I kind of hoped to have a nice, clean campaign without any mention of an issue," Wintergreen says early on. In a way, that seems to be what Arena Stage was attempting with this production. If the creators of "Of Thee I Sing" were still around, chances are they would have sharpened the show's bite; Arena pulled a few of its teeth instead. The result is bright, cheerful, tuneful and regrettably tame.

'Of Thee I Sing'

When: Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; matinees Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. Through Nov. 22.

Where: Arena Stage, Sixth Street and Maine Avenue Southwest, Washington.

Tickets: $19-$37.

Call: (202) 488-3300.

** 1/2

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